Gorbachev ‘s Failure, Foreseen in 1990

This article was written between the collapse of Leninism in Eastern Europe in 1989, and its collapse in the Soviet Union in 1991.

Irish Political Review Volume 5, No. 3 March 1990

The State And Revolution

Perhaps Marx was right when he said that history repeats itself twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Those who try to recreate the glories of the past without taking account of modern conditions are doomed to failure.

Nevertheless, it is possible to look at the history of a country and see recurring themes. In the case of Russia there has been a pattern to its history. For centuries it has had an authoritarian state. Its only experience of anything resembling democracy was during the chaotic period between March and November 1917.

The problem with a society that is dominated by the state is that there is no impetus for social development.

In liberal democratic societies the state is responsive to new developments. This occurs in a country like Britain because the two main political parties which compete for state power must take account of the organised interests within the society: the political parties give coherence to the multifarious interests which the society exerts on the political system.

Of course, each of the main political parties has its own view of the world, which determines how it responds to the various interests in society.

The liberal democratic relationship of the state with the rest of the society produces quite conservative politics, because the state cannot implement reforms without at least the acquiescence of the society. Even the most radical of governments must take account of society as it is before it can contemplate how it would like society to be.

But the substantial reforms which are implemented tend not to be difficult to

reverse precisely because they have the support of the society. Also, substantial reforms, such as the ones implemented by the British Labour Government in 1945, tend to create new interests within the society, which make new demands on the political system. So, while progress is slow, it is steady and the society never stagnates.

The relationship of the state to the society in the Republic of Ireland is different to that of Britain. There is a massive consensus among the political parties which could be described as “Catholic Nationalist”. The left wing parties have not deviated from the prevailing ideology and, in many ways, they are more Catholic Nationalist than the other parties. Witness Spring’s defence of our sacred “De Valera inspired” neutrality and the opposition to the Single European Act of the Workers’ Party, along with the ‘Pro-life’ brigade.

Because of the consensus on policies among the political parties, competition for political power is based on which individuals should have the honour of forming a government, rather than which policies are the best. The populist, as distinct from policy-based, orientation of politics has led to clientism. Since all the parties are the same, the best tactic for getting things done is to go to the best individuals, or different individuals from all the parties. Some academics have argued that clientism has prevented the development of class-based politics, but it is probably more true to say that the absence of class politics has led to clientism.

The absence of competition based on policies has meant that the political parties lack the impetus to respond to new developments in the society.

Some of the most important issues in society are reflected by interest groups without reference to the political parties. During the divorce and ‘pro-life’ referenda the political parties were sitting on the sidelines.

The irrelevance of the political parties has resulted in the courts being left to mop up messy situations. While the Irish state and culture has been intolerant of individuals not subscribing to the dominant ethos, the authoritarianism of the state has been mitigated by the legacy of British rule. The Russian state has had no such historical restraint. It has always had an unelected minority governing the country with the help of a repressive secret police.

Throughout the history of the Russian Empire, the state has suppressed all interests within the society. This has led to long periods of stagnation. Then some individuals, aware of how backward the Russian Empire has become, compared to Europe, decide to implement Revolutionary change. The same state apparatus which had hitherto been used to suppress resistance to the status quo then becomes equally effective in overcoming resistance to the revolution.

Peter the Great was an example of a Russian revolutionary leader. He spent many of his formative years in Europe. When he was the Tsar he decided he would consolidate the gains of the Russian Empire, so he mobilized the resources of the state to build a city in the marshes of Finland. The city was called Petrograd, now known as Leningrad.

  1. I. Lenin was also the quintessential Russian revolutionary leader. Like Peter the Great, he was influenced by ideas from Europe. He was also frustrated at how backward the Russian Empire was, compared to Europe. In his famous pamphlet, The State And Revolution, he said that the state was an instrument of class rule. This was an accurate description of conditions in Russia. But Lenin, unlike the anarchists, was not prepared to abolish the state. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was to be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The communists transformed the society. The country which had been defeated by Japan at the start of the century managed to defeat Hitler’s forces and extend its empire to the centre of Europe by the middle of the century.

One of the ingredients for the success of the communists was the ideology that inspired the leaders and masses. But, after the death of Stalin, the leaders, and then the masses, ceased to believe in the ideology. This engendered cynicism and the society reverted to its old pattern of stagnation.

Political stagnation coincided with economic stagnation. In the mid-1970s, following the failure of the wheat harvest, the KGB secretly bought up the grain supply on the Chicago market. It was a spectacular coup, but the KGB realised that it would not always be so lucky. The KGB, the eyes and ears, as well as the sword arm of the state, was the group most aware of the economic shortcomings of the Soviet Union, as compared to the West. It seems to be behind the new attempt at modernising the Russian Empire.

Andropov was the first KGB man who became general secretary. And his protege, Gorbachev, acceded to power after the death of Chernenko. The new line from Moscow seems to have been reflected throughout Eastern Europe as was pointed out in the January issue of the Irish Political Review. There is the added possibility of disrupting the political union of the European Community, but Gorbachev has not yet delivered on the economy.

The Soviet economy is still in a mess. But it would be a mistake to assume that his political position is weak, as has been suggested by the Western media. While he has been failing on the economic front for 5 years, the so-called ‘hard liners’ have been making a mess of it for 30 years. The only alternative to Gorbachev is chaos, which incidentally is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Gorbachev is typical of Russian revolutionary leaders in that he is modernizing the Empire by importing European political ideas. But Gorbachev’s task seems much more difficult. The ideas of glasnost and perestroika seem incompatible with the authoritarian nature of the state. If Gorbachev’s revolution is about changing the nature of the state, rather than its goals, his revolution could be the revolution to end all Russian revolutions.

During the Brezhnev era, there was concern about political and economic stagnation. The problem for communist intellectuals was to explain this within the parameters of the official ideology. Why was progress in the Soviet Union, an advanced socialist country, not onwards and upwards.

A leading sociologist called Shaknazarov argued that a true communist society would take longer to attain because of the existence of various “interests” within the society. Since, according to the official ideology, the Soviet Union had reached a state of “advanced socialism”, classes and class conflict were abolished. But the society was not in harmony because of these “interests”, which Shaknazarov had discovered. These interests were not in “conflict”, but were “antagonistic” to each other. Therefore, although there was no need for the communist party to abandon its monopoly of power, it did mean that the party would have to become more responsive to these “antagonistic interests”, if it was going to reconcile them.

When Gorbachev first embarked on his reform programme, my impression was that he was merely implementing the recommendations of Shaknazarov. His main aim was to make the party more efficient in its response to social needs and therefore more effective in its control over the society.

Perhaps that was Gorbachev’s original intention, but he has found that the dead hand of the communist bureaucracy is irreformable without some pressure from the society, because it is not in the interests of the apparatchiks to make themselves more accountable. (Indeed, in many instances, the apparatchiks have quietly sabotaged the economic reforms by not implementing them, or by carrying them out in an inefficient way.)

But, by appealing to society, expectations have been fuelled, so that political reform has achieved a momentum of its own. In Brendan Clifford ‘s recent book on the French Revolution, the movement of events was compared to an opera. Initially, the Revolution had nothing to do with the masses. Their role was to appear on the stage every so often, make a fuss, and then depart to allow the main players to continue with the show. The problem was that the masses appeared so often, and grew so accustomed to appearing, that the opera became about them.

While the masses are not at the centre of recent events in the Soviet Union, they are certainly a factor. Before the recent plenum of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, radical forces managed to muster 200,000 demonstrators on the streets of Moscow. The Plenum agreed to rescind article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which had recognised the leading and guiding role of the Communist Party. This occurred less than two months after Gorbachev denounced Andrei Sakharov for daring to suggest such a thing.

This reform would seem to usher in a multi-party system. Gennadi Gerasimov, the Soviet foreign spokesman, said that a prerequisite for economic success was political freedom. It would seem that there is some basis for such a development. With the decline in Leninist ideology, the Communist Party has become less homogeneous. It is likely that, if political parties do develop, they will be drawn from the different groups within the Communist Party.

Many western commentators have been busy composing the obituary of the CPSU. But, while Leninism as an ideology is in decline, and has been for nearly 40 years, it is almost certain that the Communist Party will continue in some shape or form. There is no equivalent to the Polish movement, Solidarity, within Russia, and in the outlying regions of the Empire the main threat comes from nationalist movements.

The CPSU has shown that it has the capacity for reform. Gorbachev, in particular, has demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing circumstances: the true mark of a reformer.

Mao Tse Tung was once asked by a journalist what he thought the effects of the French Revolution were. He replied that it was too early to say. It is certainly too early to say how events will unfold in the Soviet Union, but I can’t help feeling that it would be premature to write off the prospects of a country which can produce an individual with the political ability of Gorbachev.

John Martin.


This article appeared in 2010, in Issue 5 of Problems magazine.  It republishes articles that appeared in Irish Political Review in 1990.

You can find more at the Problems page[1] on the Labour Affairs website.[2]


[1] https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/problems-magazine-older-issues/

[2] https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/