Five or six years ago in Russia I was taken out to spend the day at Gosplan - the state planning committee. Bureaucratic inflexibility was one of the topics. When it was all over, the deputy head of the planning committee and a man from one of the research organizations walked out to make sure my car was there.
''It was POURING rain. As we waited for the car, a sprinkler came on down the street, sprinkling the road. The deputy head of the planning apparatus of the whole Soviet Union said, 'There you see, professor, what we've been talking about. He's fulfilling his plan!' ''m
John Kenneth Galbraith, long known as the scourge of American corporate bureaucracy, sprawled comfortably in his living room easy chair as he enjoyed recounting this Chaplinesque scene from the other superpower's bureaucracy.
His Lincoln-size legs formed an angular arch to a distant footstool. He was discussing the shifting locus of power down through the centuries from personality (leaders with power to persuade or punish) and property (monetary reward) to today's dominant organizational power centers (corporations, unions, state bureaucracies, lobbying associations).
The takeoff point for our discussion was his 23rd book, ''The Anatomy of Power,'' published last month.
In his deadpan way, Galbraith was goring oxen by the dozen. Among the gored: secretaries of defense (''forgettable the day they leave office''), CEOs of heavy industries (''they come to resemble, intellectually and physically, the products they make''), business competition as a mechanism for efficiency (''overrated''). None were unusual targets for Galbraith wit.
But there were also surprises among the casualties as the picador of Francis Street, Cambridge, analyzed today's world. Some of the very institutions in which he believes most fervently (and, in some instances, holds membership) were gently and not so gently impaled: Ground Zero, the nuclear freeze movement in general, the Council for a Livable World, the Union of Concerned Scientists - all of which he feels have a tendency to mistake speechmaking, press-releasing, or pamphleteering for power. He calls this ''the illusion of power,'' which supplants and saps real power.
Professor Galbraith also displays his unconcern for liberal orthodoxy by criticizing dogmatists on antitrust action (''the last resort of the vacant liberal mind''), and by expressing doubts about currently voguish industrial policy - joint corporate-state planning on industrial and trade priorities (''an escape from action on absolutely essential wage and price policy'').
But if the bard of liberal Democratic economics is a picador to opponent and ally alike, he is of the Portuguese rather than the Spanish school of bullfighting. He mortally tweaks rather than mortally wounds. And in our long interview in his handsome living room just off the Harvard campus, he managed to paint a serious, constructive picture of some aspects of today's world.
First, although he is pessimistic about preventing missile deployment on both sides of Europe, he felt that the power of public response would eventually force politicians into serious arms control progress - just as the slow-gathering force of public concern ended Vietnam.
Second, despite his pessimism about bureaucratic stagnation in aging American industries, he was enthusiastic about the prospects of new ones. Not surprisingly, that category included microelectronics. But his greatest enthusiasm was reserved for ''the wave of the future, something far more important - the whole industry of the arts.''
Faced with a quizzical look in response to this unorthodox rating of the arts industry ahead of the high-tech industry, Galbraith elaborated:
''Music, films, theater, television productions, clothes and clothing design, the visual and performing arts. . . . These are industries which, even at their worst, have a quality of change, a dynamic, and also - something which we rarely realize - an American advantage which is very great. We're not in danger from the Japanese on 'Dallas.' ''
All this comment on current headline themes grew out of discussing ''The Anatomy of Power.'' Galbraith is emphatic - in book and interview - that he wanted to help readers analyze types of power and the way they have evolved through history, not to suggest action.
''I wanted to talk about power without a great flow of moral indignation. . . . What I sat down to do in this book was not to argue a pattern of reform.'' The single exception to this non-hortatory approach is his open urging that ''all those who read these pages involve themselves'' in action against the military-industrial complex. His hope: that this will eventually encourage similar motion in the Soviet Union. He does not explain how.
Except for that single departure, his approach to power is tersely - often wryly - analytical. The bare bones of his thesis is that throughout history there have been three basic forms of power: ''condign'' (the power to coerce or compel by force), ''compensatory'' (the power to reward, monetarily or in terms of position), and ''conditioned'' (the power to change belief through persuasion or education - submission to the will of another, usually not recognized as such). In short: C, C, C.
Those types of power have been exercised through the three vehicles of power mentioned earlier: personality (which includes leadership), property (which includes money), and organization. In short: P, P, O.
The author argues that modern industrial society - capitalist and socialist alike - has evolved away from the first two C's toward onditioned power, and away from P and P toward organizational forms.
Even the military-industrial complexes of the two superpowers, while capable of the ultimate condign power, are pictured as more often using conditioned power to achieve their aims. And they have evolved to represent organization power rather than the personality power of a Napoleon or a MacArthur.
Several facets of the age of organizational power have caught Galbraith's attention:
1. ''Infinitely more people now have access to power - or the illusion of it'' - than ever before. But there is a consequent dilution of each individual's leverage.
2. The aforementioned ''illusion of power'' is widespread in all types of organizations. Peace groups petition, the President addresses Congress, a political leader wins applause from the already-converted - and we take these moves as exercises in power, not the substitutes they really are.
3. A ''synthetic personality'' often leads in the exercise of power or its illusion. Galbraith cites the head of the modern corporation or the secretary of defense as examples. Such a person owes, he says, ''a purely temporary eminence to the organization which he or she heads. . . . The head of the modern corporation is slightly known, until the day he resigns and disappears. . . .''
Despite this ironic view of today's world, Professor Galbraith is not without hope for the power of ideas. And he also believes in what he calls ''countervailing forces.'' The nonviolent protest movements of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are examples of the latter.
He also speaks with enthusiasm about the Japanese example. Partly, this is a matter of an economy not weighed down by defense expenditures. Partly, it is a matter of youthful, exuberant industries - ''like those of Britain and the US years ago.'' And in large measure he agrees with those who attribute Japan's success to ''its superb educational system and the high conditioning for later life it gives.''
Then, as if to avoid being over-emotive about Japan, Galbraith leaned forward and trotted out a story:
''Someone was telling me the other night . . . about an airplane hijacking over the Pacific. Three businessmen - a Frenchman, a Japanese, and an American - were taken prisoner by terrorists. They were scheduled to be shot. Each was given one last wish. The Frenchman asked if he could telephone his wife in Paris , and he was allowed to do so. The Japanese businessman asked if he could give one last speech on Japanese industrial management. And the American asked if he could be shot first, so he wouldn't have to hear another speech on Japanese management.''
With that, the only American economist taller than Paul Volcker uncoiled himself and led the way into his study. It is lined with photos of the author towering over anyone who was anyone in the liberal pantheon over the past 40 years.
One wall, though, is populated with carved elephants, trunks akimbo. ''From India,'' he said, ''not the GOP.''