This is a chapter from the book:
The Victory of Morality over Socialism

Chapter 1. Personality cult as a question of voters’ taste vs. impersonal respect of power

When Soviet citizens are called upon to elect their “soviets,” they are at least spared the cynical swindle that the state power is putting itself more or less into their hands. The world’s bourgeois-democratic zones cultivate a human right to make a strictly personal choice among a few competitors for an office that is itself not up for election, and thereby determine a millionth of the outcome. The basis for this practice is not that voters have any say or that their interests are what counts once their choice is made. The high esteem for this basic democratic right derives instead from the lie that voters “somehow” control the function of the office in question by being allowed to pass judgment at the polls on the relative worthiness of the persons presented to them as alternatives. What is more, this lie is immediately disclaimed. When the ‘‘wrong’’ candidate wins, the basic right to electoral freedom is fulfilled by the fact that the “right” candidate, namely one’s own, could have been it …

By contrast, election campaigns in the Soviet Union seem almost like celebrations of national honesty. They are a gigantic polemic against the illusion that anything much depends on which figure, or the functionary of which political party, holds a position. And also against being proud of one’s own personal contribution to a decision that is contingent on a thousand accidents and idiosyncrasies. In the Soviet Union, the act of delegating a candidate to some council or other on the basis of vote casting — which is usually public, logically enough — is intended to be the culmination of one of many discussion processes between the Party and the voters in which the two sides come to an agreement about the “social tasks,” economic necessities and plans, political arrangements, etc., to be taken care of.

As if the Party constantly wanted to prove that it is neither interested in blind trust nor willing to tolerate indifference, it drags its voters to all kinds of election rallies — and registers proudly how’ many “masses” appeared, how many asked to speak, how many letters and petitions were received. In the Western realm of freedom, people’s opinions lead fruitless lives in the form of letters to the editor or big talk in pubs, testifying to the stupidity of thinking solely in terms of voting alternatives. In the land of the KGB and the Leninist Unity Party, the culture of complaining is promoted most fervently; it is actually made the voters’ duty. No one is supposed to rely on the illusion that his or her interests are taken care of in the best possible way by voting as such, i.e., just because one’s preferred candidate has become a representative, or only could have become one.

Soviet elections of course involve no competition between state programs either. But so what? The democratic mark on the ballot, indifferent to why it is put there or not put there, stultifies any reasoning, any reservation, any well-considered balancing that educated or uneducated, clever or naive, committed or skeptical voters may base their choice on. And this basic law of the democratic freedom to vote has long since been taken into account by the competing parties of the free world. No party bores its voters with explanations of an alternative legislative program, much less being “unreasonable” enough to demand that the voters should comment on such a thing rationally. The parties distinguish themselves by the stupidest ideological interpretations of the same political happenings: “freedom or socialism,” “solidarity or a push-and-shove society” …

The Soviet state spares its subjects such nonsense. At its election rallies you would — justly — make a fool of yourself by announcing you prefer to approach the world “with a Christian sense of responsibility,” or by asking what has become of the “critical liberal heritage.” Here, people argue about the fulfilment of the state program known to exist in the form of an economic plan for perpetually improving Soviet people’s lives; about production targets and supply gaps, over-fulfilment and dawdling — questions that adult democratic citizens loaded with human rights find ridiculously petty. After all, they are accustomed to settling the “question” of their “standard of living” in utter freedom with their payroll departments, their checkbooks and their supermarket prices.

Disputes about such specific material questions are of course no use whatsoever to a politician for gaining “stature” and demonstrating the “personality” that distinguishes a democratic “vote catcher.” Such “qualities” are based instead on the public believing that power is an art, that governing is the expression of great individual expertise and that someone’s personal characteristics therefore enable, and entitle, him or her to tell other people what to do. And this belief could never be confirmed if the rulers had to prove themselves by making sure all necessities of life and many amenities are available to everyone.

People have this belief because they are willing to be deceived by the intimate relationship between a person and the political power he or she has, to be mistaken both about the power and about its holders and enthusiasts. Responsible citizens do not judge their rulers, but admire them — which they are also doing when they “critically” question whether the figures in government are really entitled to have their official powers on the basis of their “personalities.” When people complain about such “discrepancies” they are only expressing their high esteem for the office. Furthermore, such criticism inevitably benefits the rival, whose arrogance happens to be more to one’s taste.

A personality cult as fundamental as this has no use for a clear idea of what politics is all about, much less an examination of what one gets out of one’s statesmen’s activities. What is required is the lie about an “important personality,” evidenced by the candidate’s own self-confidence (“You are looking at the next President of the United States!”), by family scenes and foreign visitors, by trips around the world and affability — and, above all, repeated every hour on the news, in television appearances; etc.

Soviet people probably do not even appreciate being spared all this, because they presumably cannot imagine how hideous a democratic interview with a politician or a Western election campaign is. They are only familiar with sober functionaries, whom democratic reporters regularly find to be wanting in “personality,” in the “charm” of worldliness — in other words, in the habitually demonstrated arrogance of power. Where should they have got such a thing? A Soviet official gets ahead by achieving successes in over-fulfilling plan targets, eliminating supply problems and abuses of state property — and not by gaining democratic majorities. When someone has managed to acquire a high position, this does not automatically make his or her private life a matter of public interest. No swarm of children, no adoring wife, not even a democratic “bath in the crowd” is cited as proof of the lie that the leading figure is a most sympathetic administrator of state affairs who should be trusted without any further arguments.

The Party greats over there are inevitably praised for the same dry, impersonal achievements and abilities: “loyalty to the Leninist principles of the Party”, “an untiring fighter for peace and communism”, “an ardent patriot”; has fulfilled such and such tasks, was given this and that distinction — and not “but above all a good person! father …” No anecdote or the like satisfies a servile democratic need for “human closeness” to the powerful. The funeral oration for Andropov made do with the same labels as the presentation of his successor Chernenko — why not? They are the only important qualities for the office they held. The Party’s laudations for its greats almost seem intended to defend them against being considered character masks of a social necessity all the way into their private lives.

The end of a politician’s career in the “East bloc” has just as little entertainment value. The mistakes registered are noticeable bungles in the “rapid development of socialism” to “ever higher achievements” — from a failure in organizing the harvest to poor planning of the “planned erection of an industrial combine” — and the people who register them are the Party and the bodies of employees in charge of economic and industrial control. If such bungles accumulate, a catastrophic harvest, for example, that cannot be attributed to the weather, this may very well cost a leading person, even a CC secretary, his or her post. And ministers do not merely vacate their offices but may lose their heads when they are convicted of large-scale corruption.

Thus, Soviet voters cannot flatter themselves that they have chased an unpopular leader out of office with their ballots; they do not have this human right. But is that any loss? Is life really only worth living if there is competition between parties, which are familiar with “mistakes,” if at all, only when it comes to showing off one’s morality, sympathy for the citizens and “strong leadership,” making such features the crucial issue for voters? Is that the worst kind of oppression when no judgment of taste on politicians’ achievements in hypocrisy — or its virtue, credibility — is asked for and treated as a means for coalition intrigues?