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.

He sees industrialisation and urbanisation as the key processes which have shaped Soviet society and politics: initially strengthening the trend towards absolutism, later giving rise to forces which have increasingly encroached on the bureaucracy’s power. Lewin’s account of the nature of social change in the Soviet Union is highly revealing. Every student of Soviet history knows that Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’ in the Thirties industrialised the economy at an unprecedented speed; and it is generally assumed that society was transformed with equal rapidity. In fact, it was not until the beginning of the Sixties that the urban population came to exceed the rural population (though, by the mid-Eighties, it would account for two-thirds of the total). It was thus primarily in the Brezhnev period that the social and political consequences of this crucial demographic change were felt: the emergence of the working class as the largest group in Soviet society, the formation of a substantial stratum of technical specialists, the largescale expansion of the scientific, cultural and managerial intelligentsia – and most important, the creation of many informal groups making demands of the political system. In today’s USSR the Brezhnev era is dismissed as the ‘period of stagnation’ – an apt description of its weak leadership and continually postponed decisions. But the term obscures the fact that in these years vital changes were under way. The drive to reform the Soviet system, which began with Andropov and has blossomed under Gorbachev, was no accident, Lewin argues. It was firmly rooted in Soviet society and it will not be easily reversed.

But how will it be carried through? Breaking the Party’s stultifying grip on the state and the economy is clearly a vital condition of success. The unlikelihood of its voluntarily surrendering its influence, however, accounts for many observers’ pessimism about perestroika. Lewin sees the question somewhat differently. On his analysis, Gorbachev is not merely seeking to remove the Party from the administration of the country (if he were, his political life expectancy would be very short). He is also attempting to restore its political role, long ago abdicated to its leaders, of debating and formulating policy, initiating change, being accountable to the population – in short, providing the leadership which its claimed vanguard character should entail. This is a plausible assessment. (Only in this light, for instance, is it possible to make sense of Gorbachev’s much criticised proposal at the Party Conference in June that first secretaries of Party committees should also be chairmen of local soviets.) But such a change would have momentous implications. It would produce, as Lewin says, a ‘democratised one-party system’. And it would mean leaders learning to live in a society ‘where many things happen outside the Party’s control and where the Party’s policies are routinely tested by the population, sometimes in dramatic confrontations’. Recent events in Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Baltic republics suggest that the Soviet political system may indeed be moving in this direction.

Yet there is a long way to go. While the social forces behind Gorbachev may be stronger than they appear, perestroika’s continuation is no more inevitable than its emergence was. It took not only the worsening economic situation, but also the death of three elderly leaders in two and a half years, to produce the election of the Politburo’s youngest and most dynamic member as General Secretary. Gorbachev’s reform campaign could be derailed by internal or external events. And popular pressures will not necessarily reinforce his reforms. Urbanisation can produce dangerous tensions as well as liberating influences. As Lewin notes, ‘civil society is not all light and progress.’ Extreme nationalist, anti-semitic, even neo-Nazi groups have taken advantage of glasnost to publicise their views. It is not inconceivable that conservative elements in the Party leadership as well as reformers might succeed in mobilising mass support.

If proof were needed that the Brezhnev period’s façade of immobility concealed a vibrant social life, there could be none better than the historical study of the Soviet intelligentsia which comprises the main part of Boris Kagarlitsky’s book. Completed in Brezhnev’s last year, 1982, when its author was only 24, it is an impressively wide-ranging and imaginative work. The breadth of Kagarlitsky’s acquaintance with Western, as well as Soviet and East European, social and political theory, culture and historiography, is remarkable – eloquent testimony to the power of ideas to transcend barriers erected by conservative regimes. If the chapters on the early Soviet period are sometimes marred by schematic and glib statements (‘Politically, Lenin’s party was to a greater degree the party of Peter I than the party of Karl Marx since it strove first and foremost to ensure that Russia imitated contemporary forms of Western organisation’), those dealing with the years following Stalin’s death are brilliantly written and will be quite indispensable for the study of Soviet culture and politics in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods. Not the least striking feature of this book is the number of parallels between the late Fifties-early Sixties and the current period. A wave of strikes in 1962, for instance, is said to have seriously reduced Khrushchev’s support among the bureaucracy – particularly relevant given a recent report that over the past year a record number of days have been lost in Soviet industry through ‘unscheduled work stoppages’.

It must be said, however, that The Thinking Reed is stronger as a work of historical than of political analysis. Kagarlitsky makes great play with the concept of ‘statocracy’ to explain the degeneration of Soviet socialism and to identify the main obstacle to restoring genuine socialism; and he advances the conventional Trotskyist thesis that only the working class can produce real change. No more than Western Sovietologists did he foresee the accession to power of a radical reformist section of the Soviet political élite. In the three essays written in 1987 which conclude the book, the concept of the ‘statocracy’ vanishes without trace, and this is no loss. What also, and more regrettably, disappears is the sense of common cause with other opponents of the bureaucracy. In The Thinking Reed, Kagarlitsky is able both to criticise the views of those he disagrees with and to recognise the value of their work. In the later pages of the book, as in his more recent articles,[*] he is at pains to distance himself from so-called ‘technocratic’ and ‘right-wing liberal’ supporters of perestroika. Closer acquaintance with his Western comrades has evidently resulted in borrowing not only some of their theoretical concepts but also their sectarian vocabulary.

So far there is little sign in the Soviet Union of the mass working-class movement which, allied with the left-wing intelligentsia, Kagarlitsky sees as the only guarantee that perestroika will serve the interests of the people rather than those of the managerial élite. Across the border in Poland, however, recent months have seen a resurgence of just such a movement. There as elsewhere in Eastern Europe opposition to the Government has been fuelled by perestroika. The example of hitherto sacrosanct principles being criticised in the very birthplace of Marxism-Leninism has strengthened the hand of reformers throughout the Soviet bloc. There is a double paradox here. First, that for once the Soviet Union should be the inspirer not repressor of reform; and second, that Eastern Europe could hold the key to the future of the Soviet Union. For of all the events which could torpedo Gorbachev’s reforms, a political explosion in Eastern Europe is the most threatening. Disturbances in remote corners of the USSR can be coped with at relatively low cost, as they have been to date in Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the loss of control by a fraternal regime would present Gorbachev with an appalling dilemma. Not to intervene would be seen, above all by the Soviet military, as gravely compromising Soviet security. But intervention would lose Gorbachev both the Soviet intelligentsia’s support and Western sympathy for his cause. It would also enormously strengthen the case of those who argue that radical reform will fatally destabilise the Soviet system. Small wonder that rumours circulate of collaboration between Eastern European and Soviet conservatives aimed at provoking a crisis in Eastern Europe.

For this reason, as Karen Dawisha’s book shows, Gorbachev’s attempt to reform ‘state socialism’ must apply as much to Eastern Europe as to the Sovet Union. In Eastern Europe, however, his task is if anything even more daunting. Not only have most regimes there been still more visibly incompetent, but several countries have close cultural ties with the West and a corresponding antipathy to Soviet influence. Karen Dawisha provides a well-informed and lucid analysis of the problems of the East European countries, as well as a cogent overview of Soviet and Western interests in the region.

Whether or not perestroika ultimately succeeds, the Soviet Union is undoubtedly changing fast. But the direction of change is not as evident as some Western observers imagine. Recent developments in the USSR have produced a revival of the convergence theories fashionable in the Sixties; change for the better in the Soviet Union means that it is becoming more like the West. Leaving aside the thorny questions of how much openness, grass-roots democracy, or freedom from state control Western societies actually enjoy, it is not clear that the USSR is moving steadily in a westerly direction. For all the talk by some reformers about the greater use of market mechanisms, there is no sign that Gorbachev intends to introduce a market economy, nor that he intends to undermine the collectivist and centralist values which lie at the heart of the Soviet system. Reports of the demise of Marxism-Leninism in the USSR are premature. On the contrary, it is just possible, not only that Gorbachev might achieve his proclaimed goal of realising some of the emancipatory and democratic ideals of 1917, but that successful reform in the Soviet Union might strengthen prospects for socialism internationally. Time will tell. What is certain is that in the Soviet Union today, as Moshe Lewin says, ‘one of the most remarkable stories of our time is now unfolding.’

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