Just how different was the post-Stalin Soviet Union from the Western democracies? Nowadays, historians ask the question in a routine way, focusing on the principles underlyng the consumer economy or the welfare state. The question has a provocative edge, but one that has been blunted by repetition. When AJP Taylor, the great historian-troublemaker of the twentieth century, asked the question in 1957, he struck an exposed spot that ought still to make democracies wince today.
Taylor was an historical and journalistic provocateur. Whether he was teaching undergraduates, giving television lectures, or writing for the Sunday Express, he would offer a paradox to startle, a clever phrase to amuse, and a flourish of argument to convince. But he was also a scholar of the first rank, especially in diplomatic history, and a passionate observer of contemporary events.
In 1957, Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, rejected a review that Taylor had written of Milovan Djilas’s The New Class, apparently because Taylor had suggested that Britain and Yugoslavia occupied different stages of the same continuum. Bureaucratized government or conformist mentalities were everywhere, at least in some form: the Iron Curtain might be less tightly drawn than you think. Furious at this rejection from an editor who published hundreds of his reviews, Taylor wrote him a letter: ‘Nothing prevents us from going the same way [as the dictatorships] except constant kicking. And not humbugging ourselves. For instance, you go on that we have been able to make a hell of a row about phone-tapping. Yes, and what good has it done? Phone-tapping goes on, and is given official approval by the Labour front bench.’
The debate about the similarities and differences that marked life on either side of the Iron Curtain is not only an historical one. What makes a democracy and what makes a dictatorship? Do they occupy a continuum? Can a democracy walk towards a dictatorial cut-off point, more-or-less knowing what it is doing?
This week, after all, bureaucratized, conformist politicians — Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat — joined to pass the emergency surveillance law.