Polycentricism-European Unity – The Chinese Threat

A debate on three current issues

Klaus Mehnert, M.L. Sondhi
Shakti, December 1965

Question:  What is the main reason for the existence of Polycentricism?

Mehnert:  There is a good deal of objection to the word “polycentricism”, but let us not bother about the word.  It is known what is meant by it.  Do not put me down as some one who believes in the word.  Simply, as long as Stalin lived and the power of the Soviet Union as compared to the power of other communist parties was overwhelming, there was just one centre.  But as soon as other parties began to emerge and to display some will of their own, first Tito and then China, more centres emerged.  In fact there can only be one centre, because the word “Centre” implies that there is one.  However, power has been diffused and there was no longer one Centre, but the power was located in more than one country, and particularly so after China had emerged as a power.  Once there are two centres, there are infinitely many.  One can hold many together, two cannot.  Now there are as many opinions as there are communist parties.  So I think that this is the reason for the diffusion of power within the communist world.

As soon as there were differences of opinion, the national interest began to appear in each communist country, indeed even in each communist party that was not in power (incidentally, there are only twelve ruling communist parties).  So then the national interest was involved in the communist party leadership and its policy.  Of course there are economic factors as well; one country is dissatisfied and the other says that the Soviet Union is helping others more with credit and so on.  There are also border disputes, for instance, between Rumania and Russia, Rumania and Hungary, the Soviet Union and China.  Once there is not one style in the way of Stalin’s to hold the whole group together, this disintegration of forces begins to appear.  Ideology, of course, also plays a role, although I never put it in the first place because I do not think it is the main issue.  It is used as an instrument by the opposite forces to justify their position in ideological terms, even though it may be their very power based on political considerations.  Consequently, all these factors add to the present diffusion within or disintegration of the communist camp.  What are your expectations about polycentricism for the near future?

Sondhi:  I just want to emphasise that the changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe, and there are quite a lot of them, are so far-reaching that one really has to revise most of one’s concepts of the past.  Take a country like Czechoslovakia.  It is more or less going back into its own previous history, and even when a communist leader in that country discusses the party line, he does not speak in terms of what Prof. Mehnert called ideology.  He is really concerned with articulating some kind of justification for the technical changes, and I use the word technical in the widest possible sense (including all aspects of social engineering), and the ideological background does not help determining most of the questions that are being asked in the area.  When visiting and studying these countries, you will find that they have their own character and that parts of these countries have their own individual, local character and trends which are emerging show fantastic differences.  As compared to the first time that I visited Eastern Europe, in 1956-1957, now in 1965 you will hardly recognise any landmark of that time.

Mehnert:  Those who used to be the “Gauleiters” of Stalin are now leaders of countries with an increasingly emancipated policy, in which they also try to establish closer contacts with the masses of their own country by being more nationalistic.  And they all have gained popularity.  The communist leaders in Rumania were not very popular, but once they started turning away from Russia and began to purse a more independent policy, they became much more popular.

Sondhi:  I would emphasise the need to recognise a different problem, once a polycentric process starts.  One really cannot identify a particular individual as a Stalinist, or a neo-Stalinist, or a de-Stalinist.  However, a kind of modernisation is spreading over this area, and that is why it is nonsense to speak of a fulfilment of Marxist prophecies.  Take the economic revinisionists.  I think that they are in fact studying more often what Mc Namara is doing with the Pentagon budget rather than studying the Soviet experiences.  I was impressed by the healthy curiosity of the younger economists.

Mehnert:  In addition they study western marketing and consumer research, and all kinds of things.  A few years ago they did not even know that these aspects existed, but now they think that they are important subjects.

Question:  Will the development in Eastern Europe occur as we hope it will, not only in the economic sphere, but politically towards democracy as we know it?

Sondhi:  We can only follow the trend.  In these countries there will always be a continuing impression from the past, and this cannot be removed.  People will dwell upon their experiences, which were altogether unique.  There was in the Stalin era totalitarian control of all the ideas and the rulers claimed they were not only establishing a new social system but creating a new communist human being.  Now all this has been rejected, but still these experiences have left behind certain attitudes.  Thus the facts of the Hungarian upheaval in 1956 will not be forgotten, nor the way in which Gomulka came into power.  Therefore, this area will continue to retain a certain relation with the past events, and it will do so in a very different way from Western Europe.  Personally I think that Western Europe should not try to Westernise this area by way of an active, liberating policy, but should allow trends to develop.  In building relations with Eastern Europe there is great need to emphasise ingredients of the more liberal aspects of Western thinking, and its more enlightened thinking.  The West has tremendous potentials for surmounting problems, provided the West can be very relaxed over this area.  It would have a good educative influence on the Soviet Union, but policies of active “Westernisation” will be fraught with peril.

 Mehnert:  But as I am not an Asiatic, I am not so much relaxed.

I think that the West can do – and I would say, should do – certain things to accelerate the process of disintegration of the communist camp and the westernisation of the Eastern European countries.  Essentially they are Europeans.  The Poles do not differ very much from the Italians.  The fact is the Poles are as Catholic as the Italians.  I shall give you an example of where, in my opinion, Western action has accelerated this development in the block.  When the EEC was established, Khrushchev thought that it was a good joke and that it would not work, because the capitalistic countries would not be able to overcome their contradictions.  Realising that it was possible, he took it seriously and then realised that it was necessary for the communist camp to enter into a kind of EEC.  However, the Comecon which existed already was not activated by him.  He wanted to make it a great plan, a large area of planning, the whole of the Comecon and that in turn caused the Rumanians to withdraw.  So, from the EEC to a tightening up of Comecon to the withdrawal of Rumania, there is a straight line of action.  Take the millions of people from Western countries who have visited Eastern Europe this year by car, by train, by plane and in tents: this leaves traces.  I am for liberalisation of relations and I am in favour of inviting them or to go to them.  I am in favour of each type of contact whenever their leaders allow it.

Sondhi:  I would only like to add that I am all in favour of cultural exchange.  This has done a lot of good for better relations.  Everybody realises it.  The point I wanted to make is that, since these countries have had a kind of historic experience, it is like people who crowd together during an air raid, they develop certain hidden bonds, they may even hate each other, I do  not even rule that out, but together they have faced the same danger, for which they all found a common response.  And perhaps something valuable may come out of this, the more so as this area was known as an area of hostilities in the past:  the Czechs were fighting against the Slovaks, the Poles were fighting the Czechs, the Hungarians had their antagonism with the Rumanians, there were jokes like “if you have a Rumanian as a friend, you do not need an enemy”.  All that I suggest is that we may have an opportunity to undo the past that we may have a chance to help this area, that we help them to develop mutual bonds.  I see the possibilities of tremendously intimate relationship with the West by trains, helicopters, spacecraft etc., and the iron curtain is nonsense.  But what I have in mind is a slightly different idea about the world.  I feel that two big conglomerations of nations will not grow very old.  It is something like a business firm which becomes too large.  For a long time there will be only a loosely organised Europe, consisting of central, northern, southern and eastern regions with England as an appendix in the west. 

Mehnert:  Do you propose to break the republic of India open to arrive as the same result?  All together we are even smaller than India.

Sondhi:  Well, I do not think so.  I do not think that we should make such a comparison.  I believe that, far into the next century, this world will be a world with many loose regional coalitions of neighbouring population areas.  I do not foresee one united monolithic Europe.  I welcome suggestions for bringing closer individual countries of Western and Eastern Europe together, for example, the proposals on bringing together Poles and Germans.  Considering this from the point view of India, I would support a lot of such activities.  But I am not in favour of clamping down unity from outside.

Really, we do not know what part these small countries will play in the end.  When old fears disappear, new possibilities present themselves…. Prof. Mehnert talked about Rumania, I was thinking of Czechoslovakia; a country which has surprised everybody by its development since 1963.  The democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia have given a certain profile, a certain character, to its people.  With the dismantling of the Stalinist edifice the creativity of people is recovering rapidly.  Already there are young people whose contribution to economics, sociology, literature and theatre is highly original.  The late President Kennedy used this word “excellence.”  I think that, in a sense, it has more reference to Eastern Europe than to the United States, for in Europe survival will be founded on excellence.  One of the drawbacks of Stalinism was that it discouraged excellence.  It encouraged mediocrity.

This mentality of “competition” is predestined to spread over Eastern Europe, whatever the result may be, ….that is unpredictable.  I am altogether very hopeful with respect to the developments in Eastern Europe.  

Mehnert:  My vision on the near future for Eastern Europe is the following.  Certainly I want the United States of Europe.  I cannot see whether for India or for any other country a non-united Europe would be preferred to a united Europe.  For it would be an enormous concentration of brainpower, industrial power, possibly not military power, compared with what the Americans and the Russians have, so enormous a concentration of economic and intellectual power.  Of course the Poles, the Czechs and the Rumanians belong to it.  The Soviet Union is the big problem.  Now it is De Gaulle’s vision that Russia will crumple up again, that it will lose its Asiatic areas and will have the Urals as its eastern border.  If this should happen, it will be very easy to include this “body – Russia” in the United States of Europe, although I do not advocate this…I am afraid that Russia extends as far as Vladivostok and as for me this may remain so.  I feel that the Soviet Union is far too powerful to be eaten by the United States of Europe.  So, what I should like to see – say by 1980 is a United Europe maintaining good relations with the United States of America, preferably on a less dependant basis than it is the case now, and maintaining good relations with the Soviet Union, which, by the developments in Eastern and South–eastern Europe, is becoming aware of the fact that they are also part of Europe.  And then there is of course China, which, by 1980 may have resolved its greatest difficulties and will be a little more coexistable than it has been up to now.  Finally there is India, which is a world in itself….

Sondhi:  I do not want to express this in terms of agreement and disagreement, but it is rather a question of what trends you wish to emphasise.  In a way there is a European idea of shared values, of the approach to culture, of industrial organisation, of what is fair and unfair, etc.  On all these matters there will be a development towards more contacts, for the mere idea of an iron curtain is wrong, it does harm to everyone.  But I am not so sure that the world is in a mood to establish institutions like it witnessed before at the end of World War II.  To some respect I stand on the side of General de Gualle when I do not recommend so-called supranational organisations as Prof. Mehnert said, a United States of Europe.  You know that de Gaulle is resolutely against development of such an organisation.

Mehnert:  That is why I am against de Gaulle.

Sondhi:  Well then, I shall not express myself on that, but I think that the success of de Gaulle’s political initiatives is due largely to his sound understanding of the basic political realities of our changing world and he takes pains to find out facts without interference from preconceived notions.  Only recently, Mr. Andre Malraux came to India and it was most impressive to see how he went around.  Mr. Malraux was sympathetic to Indian political perspectives in a very meaningful way.  It is my impression that the objectives of Guallist France are based upon a good deal of realism but their articulation may have caused alarm to some countries.  The Americans are really alarmed about France.

Mehnert:  Incidentally, you know that Malraux was already a sympathetic man long before de Gaulle came into power.

Sondhi:  I feel that on the future of European political evolution, one should have an open mind to a large number of possibilities.  There are a lot of reactions against the idea of Central European Zone, neither the people in the East, nor the people in the West think it attractive, but I have the feeling, this idea has a potential, and that new types of institutions will spontaneously develop.  The USA was evidently established in an era when social and political engineering was not as complicated as it is in these days.  In today’s world, expectations of quick integration on some standard model may prove to be quite unrealistic.  In a way the differences between France and Germany are an indication already.

Mehnert:  There are no differences between France and Germany, but between de Gaulle and Germany.

Sondhi:  Perhaps they are not fundamental differences, but, tensions come to the surface because of deliberate acceleration of some trends that are working of their own accord inevitably but slowly. 

Mehnert:  It is really questionable whether they are inevitable.  I think that the growing together in Europe is not more or nor less inevitable than the falling apart of India.  Suppose we should have a charming visitor from Madras, who would tell us everything about a separate state to be built in South East India, you would not like it.  Thus I should not like it that one adheres to a European separatism.

Sondhi:  To tell you a personal secret, I am from north India and my wife comes from Madras, and I am in favour of that kind of integration.  However, I am not thinking of the whole of Eastern Europe, but of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, where the problems are a little bit different from those in Rumania and Hungary.  For public opinion in these countries it is impossible to let the past remain dormant.  I am sure that Prof. Mehnert will agree that the political problems of India are of quite a different sort.  It is an area where we shall have to apply highly different conceptions.

Question:  Are you, Prof. Sondhi, as optimistic with regard to China as Prof. Mehnert?

Mehnert:  That China will be more coexistable within fifteen years.

Sondhi:  Up till now we have not yet had a really good analysis of the sources of Chinese behaviour.  Although many writers including Prof. Mehnert have given useful and penetrating analysis, research has to be developed further.  Prof. Mehnert is not a diplomat, so that the opportunities he has in order to test his theories are rather limited.  I have the feeling that some concepts of polycentricism are applicable to China.  Some inevitable processes are going on.  Thus North Korea and North Vietnam are not so much oriented towards China as we sometimes think they are.  Tibet will in fact be the test case, for it has a highly marked and continuing identity. 

More important, I think that the fear of China which India had in 1962 has considerably diminished, in this sense that there is more scientifically mature discussion in India about China and a greater inclination to understand the basic developments in China, and to develop appropriate policies.

It is India’s political strength and will-power along with that of countries like Japan that will largely determine the possibilities of controlling the recklessness of Chinese leaders and ensuring peace in Asia and in the world.

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