Thursday, February 4, 2010

The World According to Garp(achev)

Communist Rally

How did Mikhail Gorbachev see the world in 1987, four short years before the union he led fell to pieces? It’s impossible to know Gorbachev’s inner thoughts, but his speech to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in that same year seems surprisingly straightforward. While the General Secretary flatters his audience, he also challenges it. Was Communism really doomed? Very likely, but Gorbachev didn’t think so. The history of Bolshevism was replete with heroic progress; the future could resemble this glorious past. Notwithstanding its challenges, the Soviet Union had done more for human kind in seventy years than any other people had done for it in a comparable period.

Operating Telephones

Possibly a rhetorical flourish, Gorbachev reminded the Party of the significance of October, 1917. This was “humanity’s finest hour,” the “dawn of the real history of mankind,” and a time that “changed man’s inner world beyond recognition.” It was also a summation of everything good and progressive in Russia’s long history. October was peasant rebellion, Decembrist action, worker strike, and cultural protest all rolled into one. Lenin and the Revolution liberated the people, and brought them education, social welfare, equality, freedom, and the first experiment in real democracy in an age of bourgeois imperialism.

Stalin And Lenin

The Communist Party achieved the first successful revolution in the modern, imperialist era. It also modernized Russia and brought it victory in World War II. In Gorbachev’s view, the Party’s successes were predicated on something other than unfettered discipline. For Lenin had taught his disciples the virtues of “revolutionary dialectics,” which is to say he had taught them to use Marxist principles to solve political problems in bold but open-ended, creative ways.

The Bolsheviks had, after all, made a long series of strategic reversals. First, they abandoned their slogan, “all power to the soviets,” when their opponents, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, controlled those quasi-governmental political organs. Second, they turned against the traditional Leftist prejudice against seizing power in a socially backward country such as Russia. Third, they performed a volte-face and withdrew from the First World War in order to salvage the Revolution. Fourth, the Bolsheviks overturned their erstwhile theory of a volunteer militia and created a professional Red Army capable of winning a fierce civil war. Fifth, and most importantly, Lenin ended War Communism and allowed capitalism to coexist with socialism during the period of the New Economic Policy.

Gorbachev thought that the Party was the backbone of progress in Soviet Russia. It was the vanguard of revolutionary change. Therefore, the General Secretary felt justified in asking Party members to help him to correct serious problems in the socialist economy. While admiring the spirit of self-sacrifice that had quite literally “electrified” the Soviet landscape, he thought that Stalinist command economics were not appropriate for an advanced economy. A modern USSR could no longer rely on “enthusiasm alone” to effect change. While previous generations had achieved miracles in terms of hauling the country into the twentieth century, the present generation confronted challenges that required innovation, honesty, humanistic values, self-criticism, and flexibility.

Centralized planning had served Russia well during the Interwar period. Notwithstanding his mistakes, Stalin had led the Party toward essentially sound goals. Stalin’s Party had gotten it right. His Party had ignored Trotsky’s blandishments and built the world’s first socialist state. Stalin’s Party had liberated labor and built dozens if not hundreds of major industrial projects. Following the Great Patriotic War, the Communists overcame the devastation, raised Soviet prestige in the international community, and raised its citizens’ standard of living.

On the other hand, the Soviet Union’s achievements had entailed a dark flip side. The country’s economy became too rigid, too centralized, and too bureaucratic. Stalin’s legacy ran counter to the Leninist path of respecting peasants (Gorbachev saw no irony in this phrase). And it was basically undemocratic. The cult of personality disenfranchised Russians. The centralized economy forestalled initiative. To take the country forward, Russia needed reform and openness. More than that, the Soviet Union needed to “update methods,” create “contemporary forms,” and embrace science, technology, and progress. It needed to encourage independence, initiative, and responsibility among the people. If this prescription seems vague, it was.

What did Gorbachev mean when he talked about improving quality or accelerating social progress? What specific proposals would bring these things about? Was Gorbachev’s unity among Party members compatible with his call for independent modes of thinking? Was his demand that workers take more responsibility over their lives consistent with his desire to keep the Party apparatus together?

Mikhail Gorbachev

Whether his speech reflected personal opinion or political reality, Gorbachev presented his Party with a realistic middle path between jettisoning its historical legacy and submitting to apathy and stagnation. Gorbachev’s understanding of history was profoundly flawed. As late as 1987, he was espousing a Stalinist line about both Trotsky and Bukharin, still insisting that the Party had essentially “been right” in its activities. But who –besides Yeltsin--could have done more than that? Clearly, Gorbachev’s intellect and energy and relative honest was not enough to salvage the Bolshevik project. The country was in very bad shape. Its economy was in shambles, but perhaps more importantly, the Russian people had begun to blame the Party for its troubles.

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