Going West

John Barber

  • 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
  • Eastern 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.

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[*] See, for example, ‘Perestroika: The Dialectic of Change’ in New Left Review, No 169, May/June 1988.