Essay: Convergence: The Uncertain Meeting of East and West

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The only choice is either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course.


SHOULD Lenin be taken at his word?

Some Western political theorists and even a few Russians think not, and in defense of their belief they have propagated what has become known as the convergence theory. In essence, the theory proposes that capitalism and Communism—driven by the irresistible scientific and technological forces that control modern industrial states—will eventually coalesce into a new form of society, blending the personal freedom and profit motive of Western democracies with the Communist system's government control of the economy.

Convergence prophets argue that the theory has universal application, but contend that it applies particularly to the United States and Russia. Despite their manifest differences, both nations are post-industrial powers grappling with the problems of advanced technology. According to the convergence theory, Moscow and Washington should meet some day at the omega point somewhere on the outskirts of Belgrade, the capital of a nation that has—so far, successfully —introduced elements of capitalism into a doctrinally Marxist society.

Perhaps the most dramatic endorsement of the convergence theory has come from behind the Iron Curtain. In a 10,000-word essay that was widely but illicitly circulated in Russia before being smuggled out to the West in 1968, the distinguished Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov held that the only hope for world peace was a rapprochement between the socialist and capitalist systems. Suggesting that Sakharov's clandestine ideas still have a certain appeal for Russian intellectuals, another Soviet physicist, Pyotr Kapitsa, gave an oblique endorsement to convergence while on a tour last fall of U.S. universities. "There should not be one multiplication table for Russians and another for Americans," he told a Washington press conference. "I believe that a bringing together of the two systems is correct."

Major Heresy

Kapitsa's approval of the Sakharov thesis was a trifle ambiguous, and with good reason: convergence is regarded by Soviet ideologues as a major heresy. In essence, the theory is a variation on a Marxist theme—namely, that economic developments govern political and social evolution. But it challenges the conviction of Soviet orthodoxy that Communism alone is the road to human development. After publication of his essay in the West, Sakharov was dismissed as chief consultant to the state committee for nuclear energy, and hardly a month goes by without a denunciation of convergence appearing in the Soviet press.

The convergence theory has only recently become the hope of a few Russian thinkers; the idea if not the term has been a persistent but chimerical dream in the West for decades. During World War II, when the Soviet Union was cast as an ally of Western democracies, convergence was widely propagated by a pair of émigré Russian sociologists, Nikolai Timasheff of Fordham and the late Pitirim Sorokin of Harvard. Both professors theorized that the Soviet Union would eventually develop into a less repressive and more democratic society as it progressed economically.

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