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June 2004 • Vol 4, No. 6 •


The Flight From Freedom of Richard Pipes

By Rod Holt

Richard Pipes

Richard Pipes, a senior neo-conservative, danced with glee as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1989-1991 along with the Eastern European workers’ states. He said, “…expectations were high that Russia, rid of communism, would take a firm pro-Western course: democratizing its political system, granting its citizens unassailable civil rights, and rejoining the international community.”1 Western capitalists, however, were not the least concerned about democracy, nor, in truth, was Pipes himself. The purpose of the Cold War was not just to remove the USSR as a world power, but to open the country to imperialist investment. With checkbooks in hand, they were expecting to take over both industry and markets.

Western capital is disappointed and they are not alone. Pipes himself is very disappointed and he feels obliged to explain why he and western capitalism misjudged the future. “…Russia’s democratic institutions have been muzzled, its civil rights restricted, and its cooperation with the international community far from assured,”2 says Professor Pipes, virtually in tears.

Pipes usually writes for the radical conservative, the extreme anti-communist, and the unreconstructed cold warrior. To them he presents himself as a mature analyst, as a principled and influential advocate within the Carter and Reagan administrations, a leader of “Team B” (a secret strategic intelligence group charged with second guessing the other intelligence agencies), and an intimate of George H. W. Bush when he was running the CIA. Pipes now holds a prestigious position as Emeritus Professor of History at Harvard University.

Pipes has reason to pride himself on his role inside the “intelligence” community (as they say) since he actually wrote many of the intelligence reports that went to the White House while he was Director of European and Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council (1981-82). He successfully pushed for escalating the arms race with the USSR, perhaps the most significant factor in its
economic ruin.

Pipes modestly accepts credit for the defeat of communism in an interview with a right wing Internet publication:

Frontpage Magazine: … comment on what it feels like to have been personally responsible for helping destroy one of the most evil regimes in history.

Pipes: I am proud to have played a part in bringing down the Soviet regime. Although at the time I was almost universally condemned for my views of the USSR and for the strategy, which I recommended to deal with it. The situation has dramatically changed in the past several years and now praise greatly outnumbers criticism.3

From this background, Pipes writes in the spring edition of Foreign Affairs a most useful article, “Flight From Freedom: What Russians Think and Want.” The article is useful for socialists not because Pipes is a reliable source but because of his extreme anticommunist prejudices. In the process of painting a hopelessly discouraging future for capitalism in Russia, he inadvertently illuminates an area that concerns us: what are the attitudes of Russians toward the inroads of Western capitalism, privatization, and the imitation Western democratic forms they are now living with?

Pipes bases his entire article on a careful reading of various public-opinion polls, which would ordinarily be a notoriously inaccurate foundation for political analysis, but here we have an exception. Pipes grasps for any straw to rescue his thesis that capitalism is the desirable and natural state of mankind. With communism defeated by the obvious superiority of the Western capitalist countries, and the Stalinist tyranny in retreat, why have the Russians failed to joyfully embrace their conquerors?

The evidence from the polls is something he can neither avoid nor fathom: “… there is a good deal of evidence that the anti-democratic, anti-libertarian actions of the current administration [Putin and Co.] are not being inflicted on the Russian people but are actually supported by them. This evidence also indicates that no more than one Russian in ten cares about democratic liberties and civil rights.”4 Pipes is scandalized.

Groping for explanations, Pipes reveals an extraordinarily racist view of Russians who must simply be defective; they cannot understand Western liberties: “Until 1861, the vast majority of Russia’s population were serfs, beholden to the state or to private landlords…. Human rights was an alien notion to them….” “These factors—the absence of social and national cohesion, the ignorance of civil rights, the lack of any real notion of private property, and an ineffective judiciary—prompted Russians to desire strong tsarist rule. With few lateral social ties, they relied on the state to protect them from each other.” (Russians desired the knout, you see.) “Such is Russia’s cultural inheritance, the net effect of which is to make Russians, even in modern times, the least socialized or politicized people on the European continent.”5

When Pipes asserts that Russians lack any real notion of private property, it is not by accident. Pipes has argued at length that people by nature are inherently acquisitive, and so want to accumulate property. For this they need property rights, the right to own property to extract rent and the right to own property as the means of production. For Pipes, property rights are the precondition for democracy—and everybody wants democracy:

In and of itself, the desire to possess, manifests greed no more than the appetite for food manifests gluttony, or love, lechery. Acquisitiveness is common to all living things, being universal among animals and children as well as adults at every level of civilization. On the most elementary level, it is an expression of the instinct of survival. But beyond this, it constitutes a basic trait of the human personality, for which achievements and acquisitions are means of self-fulfillment. And since fulfillment of the self is the essence of liberty, liberty cannot flourish when property and the inequality to which it gives rise are forcibly eliminated.6

Despite what Pipes wishes were true, reality forces him to reach some conclusions about current Russian attitudes toward “liberty” and “property.” He finds that Russians have little respect for the court system. They consider it as corrupt and subservient to the state. In addition, he writes:

Russian attitudes toward private enterprise and property rights are hardly more positive. Here, too, the prevailing mood ranges from indifference to cynicism to outright hostility. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed in a poll published in January 2004, for example, said that wealth in Russia can be acquired only through connections. Four out of five respondents stated that the inequalities in wealth in modern Russia are excessive and illegitimate, and most blamed the country’s widespread poverty on an unjust economic system.7

So much for the Russian attitude towards the capitalism they are forced to live with.

This is an important, near unanimous rejection of Pipes’s view of human nature. But wait. Just re-read the paragraph above substituting “the American worker” for “Russian.” Now, the quote describes exactly those opinions you will find everywhere except in our newspapers. How many Americans believe inequalities in wealth are excessive, that you can’t get rich except through “connections,” that the country’s widespread poverty is due to an unjust economic system? Most American workers would agree with their Russian counterparts.

On the ownership of property (remember that Pipes is referring not to personal effects but to property that can produce a profit), he repeats an estimate that only 3.6 million Russians out of 150 million own assets even worth preserving. Then he notes, “…polling data indicate that slightly more than half the population considers the nonpayment of debts and shoplifting to be ‘fully acceptable’ behavior.” Mr. Pipes’s heart goes out to the Russian businessman.

Here are more of his distressing conclusions:

The spirit of entrepreneurship in Russia also is weak, because the quest for security overrides ambition. In response to the question “Would you accept an executive post?” for example, only 9 percent responded affirmatively, whereas 63 percent said, “No, under no conditions.”…

With each passing year, an increasing number of Russians want the government to be more involved in the country’s economic life. In 1999, 72 percent said they wanted to restrict private economic initiative.…

Only 12 percent regarded the post-communist regime as “legitimate,” and only 2 percent called it “their own”. Hence it is not surprising that when asked in an October 2003 survey how they would react if the Communists staged a coup, 23 percent of respondents said they would actively support it, 19 percent would collaborate with the insurgents, 27 percent would try to survive, 16 percent would emigrate, and only 10 percent would actively resist.

It is quite clear that capitalism is something the overwhelming majority of the Russian people do not want. Russia’s current contradictions may be heading for a startling resolution sooner than we thought.

1 “Flight From Freedom”, Foreign Affairs, March-April, 2004

2 Ibid.

3 Interview with Jamie Glazov, Frontpage Magazine.com, Jan. 19, 2004.

4Flight From Freedom.

5 Ibid.

6 “Life, Liberty, Property,” Richard Pipes, Commentary, March, 1999.

7 “Flight From Freedom” All further quotes are from this essay.





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