- The Gorbachev Phenomenon: A Historical Interpretation by Moshe Lewin
Radius, 176 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 09 173202 6
- The Thinking Reed: Intellectuals and the Soviet State from 1917 to the Present by Boris Kagarlitsky, translated by Brian Pearce
Verso, 374 pp, £17.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 86091 198 5
- BuyEastern Europe, Gorbachev and Reform: The Great Challenge by Karen Dawisha
Cambridge, 268 pp, £22.50, June 1988, ISBN 0 521 35560 5
It is a measure of Gorbachev’s impact in the three and a half years since he became General Secretary that the debate over his significance among Western observers has fundamentally changed. The once common view that he has merely provided a moribund system with a new image is now rarely heard. (Senator Quayle’s recent comment that ‘perestroika is nothing more than refined Stalinism’ is as unusual even for a right-wing politician as it is indicative of his ignorance about the other super-power.) The question which now preoccupies most commentators is not how genuine Gorbachev’s commitment to reform is, but whether he and his supporters can carry their reforms through. Can they overcome the inertia of the huge bureaucratic apparatus, the resistance of officials fearful of losing their power and privileges? And can they win over the sceptical masses to active support for reform?
Assessing Gorbachev’s chances of success is difficult. Partly this is because hard evidence about perestroika’s effects cannot be available for some time. While glasnost has produced immediate and dramatic results in Soviet culture and the mass media, and while changes in the political system, though more difficult to achieve, could be implemented relatively quickly, it will be some years before the effects of economic reforms are visible. The Western media’s impatience to see results, together with its need to personalise and polarise all political issues, reducing current Soviet politics to a power struggle between the ‘progressive’ group around Gorbachev and his ‘conservative’ opponents such as Ligachev, complicates the task. Political manoeuvres do not guarantee security of tenure. For a reformer, they are no substitute for concrete results: Khrushchev frequently altered the leadership’s composition, and even took on the post of prime minister as well that of Party leader: but this did not help him in 1964.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to judging where Soviet society is going is a lack of knowledge about where it has come from, and even what it actually is today. For all the detail about Soviet politics now available in the West, much expert comment is only minimally informed by the historical experience and the contemporary character of Soviet society. To a large extent, Sovietologists are viewing Gorbachev’s reforms out of context. It will hardly be surprising if future political changes in the USSR take them as much by surprise as the emergence of a dynamic reformist leadership in 1985 did.
Though perhaps not if they read The Gorbachev Phenomenon – the most illuminating study of the origins and nature of perestroika to have appeared. As the subtitle indicates, the book’s perspective is historical; it is, moreover, confined neither to the last decade or two, nor to the history of the Soviet state and Communist Party. An incomparable ability for showing the interaction of state and civil society, for revealing the interpenetration of political and economic, social and cultural forces, has long been the basis of Moshe Lewin’s great reputation as an historian of the Soviet Union. Here he brings this talent to bear powerfully on the analysis of contemporary Soviet society. In the process, the stereotypes of an immutable system and static society, faithfully reproduced by generations of political scientists, crumble away. In their place Lewin posits a social reality which is complex, dynamic and above all challenging to the political status quo.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] See, for example, ‘Perestroika: The Dialectic of Change’ in New Left Review, No 169, May/June 1988.
Vol. 11 No. 2 · 19 January 1989
In your issue of 24 November 1988 there appeared a review by John Barber of some books dealing with perestroika, including my own book The Thinking Reed. It is said in the review that in my writings of 1987 I never make use of the term ‘statocracy’. The explanation for this is not at all that I have no need of such a concept under the conditions of perestroika, or that I have renounced it. I borrowed the term from the Soviet economist M. Cheshkov, in order to point out the difference in principle between the Soviet bureaucratic oligarchy as a specific social group and a bureaucracy in the ordinary meaning of the word (as used by Max Weber), such as exists in any society, Britain included. I do not think that this difference in principle can be denied. As for my 1987 articles, they were written for readers who could not yet have seen The Thinking Reed or The Dialectics of Hope, and it was not possible to spend time explaining the class nature of the upper crust of Soviet society in popular articles in which the reader would look for concrete cultural-political analysis. I consider that there is no contradiction, however, between this analysis and the general propositions which I formulate at the beginning of my book.
John Barber is mistaken when he says that the reforms in the USSR took me by surprise. Already in the autumn of 1980 the samizdat journal Left Turn, which I edited, had carried an article by me in which it was said that the prospect of development for the Eighties was one of ‘reform from above under pressure from below’. An analysis of the strategic aims of our group in 1979-82 can be found in the French periodical Alternatives and in L. Alekseyeva’s book A History of Dissidence in the USSR.
It was precisely my confidence in the inevitability of a reformist turn that made me examine so intently in The Thinking Reed all the manifestations of official reformist thinking in the USSR (‘legal Marxism’). Whether we can regard as radical the reforms now being carried out in our country is a different question, however. Few in Soviet society would be ready to agree with that definition. What has actually changed? We have been given the possibility of visiting the West without too much difficulty, and also of giving interviews and even of publishing books there with impunity. Much has been published in the USSR. People no longer fear repressive measures. The political climate has become liberal. All this is splendid, but can it be called ‘radical reform’? Was not this sort of tolerance characteristic also of the particularly conservative regime of Gierek in Poland in 1970-80?
Incidentally, under Gorbachev the level of development of links with the West, and of the encouragement of a private-co-operative sector, is similar to what was the case in Poland in the mid-Seventies. Just as in Poland, economic reform has gone into a skid, and economic crisis is admitted by such an outstanding expert as Academician L. Abalkin to be growing precisely as a result of the absence of any radical changes. Finally, along with liberalisation, new laws are being adopted which are considerably less democratic even then the right to search dwellings without a warrant from a magistrate; the constitutional reform being put through just now severely reduces the rights of the republics and replaces direct elections to the Supreme Soviet by indirect ones, and the official social organisations are being given the right to appoint their deputies independently of normal elections in the localities. If this amounts to radical change, then in what direction?
There is no reason to doubt Gorbachev’s sincerity when he says that he wants to bring about revolutionary, or at least radical, changes in our country. But a comparison of his slogans with the results of his rule shows how limited are the possibilities of any reform from above. And the limit that is imposed, in the last analysis, is precisely the ‘class interest’ of the bureaucracy-statocracy, which is not going to do away with itself in the foreseeable future. Real changes can be accomplished only by a mass movement, the fundamental features of which already began to appear in the summer of 1988. And that is the reason why, like many other people in our country, I place my hopes on the Popular Front, and not on the liberal apparatchiki.
Vol. 11 No. 3 · 2 February 1989
Boris Kagarlitsky’s identification of the Soviet ‘bureaucracy-statocracy’ (why not, simply, ‘ruling class’?) as the obstacle to significant reform in the Soviet Union sounds convincing to someone who these days travels around East Europe (Letters, 19 January). The Communist establishments know there must be change but are not reconciled to giving up power. The new prime minister of Poland, asked the other day by a West German interviewer how Poland’s Communists would fare in free elections (not, in fact, on the cards), replied that the regime had ‘numerous supporters: in the state and economic apparatus, in the party and in the army’. Perhaps it is refreshing that the Polish premier did not bother to mention those once venerated, if often imaginary, pillars of the party – the workers, the peasants and progressive intellectuals. It certainly concentrates the mind on the nature of the struggles to come in the Soviet bloc.
Observer, London SW8
Vol. 11 No. 4 · 16 February 1989
It is good to know that Boris Kagarlitsky foresaw the prospect of ‘reform from above’ in the USSR as early as 1980 (Letters, 19 January). However, this is not the point. It was clear then to many observers inside and outside the Soviet Union that change of some kind was inevitable. There had even been abortive attempts at economic reform during the Brezhnev period itself, and Andropov’s drive to reverse Soviet decline was not unexpected. But the scope of the changes which have taken place under Gorbachev, combining cultural, economic and political elements, his exceeded all predictions. Whether they are ‘radical’ is a matter of opinion, and Kagarlitsky is right to point to their limitations. In the context of Soviet history, though, they certainly are. Already they go considerably further, for example, than Khruschev’s reforms. (Let alone Gierek’s ill-fated policies in Poland in the Seventies; that the latter is the closest analogy Kagarlitsky can find does not say much for his grasp of pere-stroika’s significance.) But he should not restrict ‘radical’ to what he approves of. The Gorbachev reforms may in his view be insufficiently socialist, but this is another issue. Nor should he allow his ideological conviction that ‘real changes can be accomplished only by a mass movement’ to distort his analysis. Modern history shows both that ‘real changes’ may occur in a variety of ways, which may or may not involve mass movements; and that the latter may equally well serve reactionary as progressive causes.
King’s College, Cambridge