Disbelieving Gorbachev’s Reforms (Jan. 1989)

A book review from January 1988, at a time when no one at all was expecting the sudden collapse that happened from November 1989 to August 1991. 

It examines Gorbachev’s own account of what he said he was doing, and treats it as empty.[A]

 The Disarming Face of Socialism

by Hugh Roberts

Now that the ballyhoo is over and the INF treaty signed, perhaps developments in the Soviet Union will begin to be thought about once more in the West, instead of being mindlessly hyped. This book provides ample food for thought, although this was certainly not its purpose.

Not the least significant thing about it is the fact that it has been written at all. Active politicians do not write books or commission them to be written in their name on an idle whim and what is true of politicians in general is certainly true of the rulers of the most complex state on earth.

Lenin and Stalin were prolific writers, but their writings were invariably analytical and their purpose was to orient the Communist movement at home and abroad by developing Communist politics on the issues of the day. There is no analysis in this book, no trace of Marxism whatever, and it is not addressed to the Communist movement, since this has practically ceased to exist, but “to the citizens of the whole world”, and its purpose is not to orient its readers but to disorient them.

The propaganda function

From the point of view of democratic socialism in the West, the most significant aspect of perestroika is the link between the programme of internal reform which Gorbachev and his colleagues have embarked on and the new line of Soviet foreign policy on disarmament. The reform is certainly addressing fundamental problems of Soviet society but, unlike its historic predecessors (Lenin’s New Economic Policy of 1921-1928 and the protracted period of ‘revisionism’ from 1953 to 1968), perestroika also has a crucial function to perform in external affairs.

This function is to re-kindle the pro-Soviet enthusiasm of the bienpensant element of the Western intelligentsia in order, through it, to charm and tranquillize Western public opinion so as to isolate those politicians disposed to doubt the intentions of the Soviet state and the wisdom of making strategic concessions to it.

In the old days, Moscow could rely on the Western Communist Parties and their penumbra of fellow-travellers to do this. But the Western Communist Parties are not what they were. The CPUSA never had much influence, the Spanish CP has largely lost what it had, the CPGB has fallen apart and the Italian CP has passed its peak and has long been disinclined to do Moscow’s bidding in foreign affairs. Since the dismal showing of the French Communist Party in the 1981 presidential election, the Kremlin has known that it has to do everything itself.

This book can be understood only in this context. For the first time in history, the General Secretary of the CPSU has set out to write a best-seller for a Western readership. What is more, he has succeeded. According to the ‘Bookwatch’ table published in the Sunday Times (27.12.87), Perestroika has been in the top ten non-fiction best-sellers for the last four weeks (that is, practically since its publication) . and is currently in 5th place.

Gorbachev is enjoying un succès fou. That he is doing so testifies not only to the generous gullibility of the Western public but also to the shrewdness of the Soviet oligarchy and the acuteness of its understanding of Western society and its changing fashions.

Made In USA

America is the source of fashion in Western politics, a fact of which the Kremlin is well aware. It is the source of Margaret Thatcher’s economic doctrines and Ken Livingstone’s “rainbow coalition” politics alike. But the most potent and durable model developed in postwar American politics has been the Kennedy model.

This never did very well in France. It was taken up by the political adventurer Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, and proved unsuitable. Servan-Schreiber was obsessed by American models. He founded the weekly magazine L ‘Express as a conscious imitation of Newsweek and wrote a best-seller called Le Defi Americain (The American Challenge). Around 1969 he launched his political career by contesting a by-election at Nancy, in de Gaulle’s native Lorraine, where he fought a barn-storming campaign in the Kennedy manner. He did not get very far. The Kennedy model was not functional in French conditions, for the simple reason that de Gaulle had pre-empted it by establishing a home-grown alternative that was superior in every respect, a fact which is demonstrated daily in the political style of Francois Mitterand.

But the Kennedy model comprehensively captured the imagination of the English left-wing intelligentsia, which has always been at odds with its native political traditions, and which admired Harold Wilson, detested James Callaghan, derided Michael Foot and now drools over Neil Kinnock for this very reason.

The secret of Kennedy’s appeal was not that he was a substantial reforming politician. He was nothing of the kind. Both Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson had far superior credentials as effective reforming Democrats than Kennedy, and Kennedy’s credentials as a ‘liberal’ were markedly inferior to those of Adlai Stevenson. Kennedy’s appeal lay in the fact that he had style, that he exuded a sophisticated and ruthless will to power, that he incarnated the prospect of a rejuvenation of the status quo and that he knew how to flatter an intelligentsia which was substantially conservative in its outlook, but wholly unwilling to admit this to itself.

The spirit of the apparatchik

It is a necessary element of the self-image of the Western left-wing intelligentsia that it is substantially independent of the socio-political status quo and as such the main source of the impulse to change it. In fact, it is overwhelmingly dependent on this status quo and its function is to register, rationalize and justify the changes that occur as a result of developments in politics to which it contributes little or nothing.

With the disappearance of the independent gentleman and the Bohemian as the main protagonists of intellectual life, and with the rise of mass-circulation newspapers and broadcasting and the generalization of publicly-funded higher education, the intelligentsia has been bureaucratized and its members are overwhelmingly apparatchiks in spirit.

The rise of Marxism as an intellectual fashion during the 1960s and 1970s was not a departure from, but a convoluted expression of, this spirit. It was exclusively an affair of the intelligentsia. It had little or nothing to do with the working class and little or nothing to do with politics. It expressed the fascination felt by left-wing intellectuals in the West for the revolutionary adventures of their Russian and Chinese counterparts.

But there was no political purpose in this fascination. Careers were built on books and articles about Lenin’s concept of conjuncture and Mao’s guerrilla strategy, but these ‘Marxists’ took care not to act out their daydreams. They knew they were not the spiritual equals of Lenin or Mao, and confined their adventures to the long vacation, trekking in Nepal or doing up old houses in the Dordogne.

(The French left-wing intelligentsia was a partial exception to this rule. Unlike its British and American counterparts, it had recent experience of extreme political instability and a still vigorous revolutionary tradition which induced it to take its fantasies in earnest. It acted them out in May 1968, almost certainly for the last time.)

The Soviet Kennedy

The rise of Gorbachev does not signify a sea-change in the character of the Soviet oligarchy, but rather this oligarchy’s understanding of the changing character of the Western intelligentsia.

For the apparatchik with intellectual pretensions and a confused self-image, political reformers within the system are interesting. One wants to believe in them because one is materially dependent upon the system yet ashamed of the fact. Material dependence upon the system is spiritually unsatisfying, indeed irksome. And so one reconciles oneself to this situation by affirming the essential goodness of the system in the belief in its susceptibility to reform. And one makes a cult of the individual politicians who, by personifying this postulated susceptibility, vindicate belief in it.

Kennedy was the prototype of this kind of politician. He had an elegant wife and could quote Robert Frost’s poetry whenever the occasion called for it. And he took care to establish his credentials with the intelligentsia by writing a book Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer Prize in the late 1950s.

It is safe to assume that all this has been minutely studied in Moscow. In Mikhail Gorbachev, with his first lady, Raisa, the Kremlin has at last come up with a Soviet Kennedy. It is unreasonable to suppose that it has done so by accident.

Gorbachev, unlike his predecessor but one, Yuri Andropov, is not his own man. Andropov, as head of the KGB, was better placed than anyone else in the Soviet oligarchy to appreciate the need for internal reform, and on Brezhnev’s death he secured the succession by his own efforts. Gorbachev, a comparatively junior figure, was appointed by the Kremlin Old Guard, led by Gromyko, who as Foreign Minister was better placed than anyone else to appreciate what would go down well in the West. Gorbachev was young, sophisticated and had an elegant wife. And now he has written a book. Is it eligible for the Pulitzer Prize, I wonder?

Frankness and Double-Talk

In order for the presentation of perestroika. to evoke public sympathy in the West, it is essential that this presentation flatter the pretensions to sophistication of Western intellectuals.

Gorbachev demonstrates his understanding of this by bluntly admitting the woeful state of the Soviet economy prior to the current reforms. In particular, the generalized stagnation of Soviet life under Brezhnev is emphasized, if not harped upon. The Soviet Kennedy needs a Soviet Eisenhower.

The elaboration of these themes in the book makes a radical change from the diet of triumphalist data on steel and grain output with which the Morning Star has traditionally regaled its readers. But Gorbachev is not addressing Morning Star readers, and the flattering of pretensions is a different exercise from the comforting of illusions. Gorbachev enchants his readers with frankness instead of statistics.

Moreover, the true purpose of the reform is actually stated very clearly. Gorbachev knows better than to leave himself open to the charge of unequivocally misrepresenting what he is up to. Thus we are told that “perestroika is a thorough renewal of every aspect of Soviet life“, that it is “not a spontaneous but a governed process“, indeed “a revolution from above” and even that “we are not going to change Soviet power, of course”. Of course.

All this is perfectly true. But this statement of purpose is repeatedly compensated for by the resort to evocative but misleading terminology. Gorbachev describes, up to a point, what is happening and why, but simultaneously manipulates the reader’s response to this information by employing vocabulary with all the right overtones. Thus we are told that “the essence of perestroika. lies in the fact that it unites socialism with democracy“, that it arises from the recognition of the need for “broad democratization of all aspects of society“, and that “the main idea … was the development of democracy.

All this is entirely untrue. Or, rather, it is untrue if by democracy is meant the freedom of society to choose its government, to change its government in a constitutional manner at intervals, and the freedom of individuals and groups to pursue major purposes independently of the state, to question publicly the premises of government policy and canvass publicly alternative policies.

It is perfectly true if by democracy is meant the more active, effective and enthusiastic participation of the population in the social projects of a dictatorial state whose character and philosophy it may not question and whose existence it must take for granted.

A “Free Choice”

As Gorbachev remarks, with probably conscious irony, “there are not many outspoken opponents of Perestroika” in the USSR. no doubt because “most of us adhere to correct political and ideological principles“. This is not surprising since, as he also observes, the society’s “entire future had to be decided” in the 1920s and 1930s.

Perestroika is therefore a renewal of society which conforms to the destiny which was marked out for this society sixty-odd years ago, following what he calls the “free choice” of 1917.

The idea that a society is bound by the terms of a fundamental and comprehensive choice made seventy years previously is not a democratic idea. The idea that Russian society – let alone the numerous other societies comprised within the sprawling Romanov empire – freely chose the line of development which was subsequently followed is a breath-taking misrepresentation of what happened in 1917.

The Bolshevik government had to do a lot of deck-clearing in 1917 and the next few years in order for this ‘choice’ to be put into effect. The first bit of deck-clearing was the forcible dispersal of the Constituent Assembly, arguably the only freely chosen representative body the peoples of the Russian empire have ever had, which the Bolsheviks chose to disperse because they were in a clear minority within it and could not choose freely how to govern the society for as long as it was around

Gorbachev cannot realistically be supposed to be unaware that Western historians know very well what happened in 1917 and that this knowledge is freely available to the Western intelligentsia as a whole in countless books, articles and both radio and television documentaries. That he should have felt free to make this extraordinary claim about 1917 suggests he knows very well that facts are largely impotent against fashions. It suggests that he harbours a profound contempt for the people he has set out to impress. And who is to say that he has not, indeed, got the measure of them?

The New Revisionism

Beyond the softening up of Western public opinion, what else is at stake in perestroika? The answer is a very great deal, from the point of view of the Soviet oligarchy. But it would probably be a mistake to place much weight on the particular features of the economic reforms involved.

Gorbachev describes the essence of these as the shift in emphasis ”from primarily administrative to primarily economic management methods at every lever’, which implies that a major process of economic liberalization is envisaged, stopping short of privatization but substituting state-capitalist for socialist economy by freeing state enterprises from the control of the central planners and obliging them instead to run at a profit. He repeatedly employs the terminology of the revisionist ‘Market Socialism’ school of the Khrushchev era, speaking with enthusiasm of “full-cost accounting“, “commodity-money relations“, and “the socialist market“.

So it is clear that perestroika involves, at least in principle, a radical retreat from socialist planned economy to market economy disguised, as in the 1950s, as a development of socialism and disingenuously legitimized, again as in the 1950s, with selective misquotation of Lenin. In matters of doctrine, Gorbachev is unquestionably a revisionist, a “market-socialist” or, as the Chinese of the Mao period would have said, a “capitalist-roader”. The difference with the earlier Soviet revisionists is nonetheless a profound one.

The revisionists who began to develop their ideas in the last years of Stalin’s rule and who blossomed under Khrushchev imagined that they could revitalise the Soviet economy by introducing the market and that they could introduce the market merely by dismantling state controls. The market was conceived to be latent in the economy and would spring back into life when permitted to do so. This proved to be an illusion in the Soviet case, although not in the more superficially socialised economies of Eastern Europe.

In no country on earth has market economy been more thoroughly extirpated and superseded than in the USSR. The social relationships corresponding to market economy were pulverised in the 1920s and 1930s and society was thoroughly reconstructed around the socialist state.

The market therefore cannot simply be allowed to revive. It must be deliberately and painstakingly re-established, and this cannot be done without the most intense stirring up of the society as a whole. Just as the most profound mobilization of the population was required to establish socialist economy in 1928-1934, so an equally profound mobilization is required to reconstruct market economy today. Interestingly, Gorbachev thinks he can do it in six years.

The point of no return

In principle, this is what perestroika is about on the home front. But because of its radical implications for the relationship between state and society, it is likely that a major element of the Soviet oligarchy has fundamental reservations about the reform and is determined not to allow it to develop beyond a certain point.

A degree of economic liberalization, a degree of glasnost (openness) in government and a degree of popular mobilization, at least for a time, are recognised to be in the interests of the state if it is to fulfill its function of imparting impetus to social and economic development, revitalize its own structures and thereby regain the moral initiative in relation to the society. But to go beyond this point would be to undermine the basis of the state itself in the long run, and the Soviet oligarchy is accustomed to thinking in terms of the long run.

There is no discussion of these realities in this interesting but disingenuous book. But then its purpose is not to educate the West, but to disarm it.


This article appeared in January 1988, in Issue 5 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  One of many on the website.  See https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/magazine-001-to-010/magazine-005/.

[A] Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World by Mikhail Gorbachev. Collins, 1987, 254 pp., £12.95.