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The Gorbachev Prospect

Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World

by Mikhail Gorbachev
Harper and Row, 254 pp., $19.95

More than a month after the first advance publicity by the publishers, and half a month after the appearance of the Russian edition in Moscow, the English edition of Mr. Gorbachev’s book has finally appeared in American bookshops and become available to the American reviewer. It is, as such books go, a handsome one, with an equally handsome photograph of Mikhail Sergeyevich’s face on the back cover, with nothing to show, to be sure, that the book is a translation; or who was the translator, but for the most part it is not badly translated.

The first question that will presumably be asked about this book is: Did Gorbachev write it himself? The answer is: in all probability yes, most of it, at least. Aside from the fact that he is not known to be given to the use of ghostwriters, it is hard to think of anyone who could have written it on his behalf. The delicacy of some of the subjects treated, the boldness of statement, the relative freshness and directness of style, and the defensive undertone of portions of argument: all these point to an extensive measure of personal involvement on his part with the authorship of the work.

A second, and related, question is, then: To what extent do the contents of the book reflect his own unadulterated thinking, and to what extent did it require or reflect approval, if not formal clearance, by his senior associates? Here the answer is more complicated. He was writing in this instance in the first person, speaking only in his own name and committing only himself. In such circumstances, the rules of clearance were presumably quite different from what they were in the case of his numerous official speeches and reports, where he was speaking in the name of one or another of the senior party bodies; and one may assume that he enjoyed a greater liberty to present things as he saw them.

On the other hand he could not, in matters of established policy, go much beyond what had been agreed to and announced by those senior bodies in formal session, especially since a great deal of all that was the reflection of his own ideas and initiatives. Beyond which, it is not to be supposed that he could or would have produced a work of such importance without at least letting his senior associates know what he was doing and giving them an opportunity to register objections. One may surmise, therefore, that what appears in this book represents a body of material with which his associates were, for the most part, in agreement, or to which they were unwilling to register objection. If the defensive undertones, mentioned above, suggest that there were still many in the Soviet hierarchy who were opposed to Gorbachev’s program, these were evidently people who had opposed it all along, on the basis of his many previous statements and initiatives, and not just because of what is repeated in this book.

In all these questions, the answers depend partly on what portion of the book one is talking about. The work falls into two parts. The first deals with perestroika as an internal program of economic, social, and attitudinal change, and is apparently addressed primarily to the Soviet reader. It represents in effect a digest, in popular form, of the concepts of perestroika that were set forth in the two long and serious reports tendered by Gorbachev, in January and June of 1987, to the respective plenary sessions of the Central Committee of the Party.

The second part, more personal and more vigorously presented, deals with the problems of the relations of the Soviet Union with its world environment, including prominently, as was inevitable, its relations with the United States. Here, too, most of the ideas brought forward are ones previously expressed by Gorbachev, but in less formal presentations: speeches in provincial Soviet centers, interviews with foreign personalities, appearances at international gatherings, etc.

While, then, little of the material brought forward will be new to the reader who has followed carefully many of Gorbachev’s earlier statements for the internal Soviet readership, the book is a useful summary of that far greater body of material. It includes, of course, a small amount of the traditional ideological distortions about the early period of Soviet-American relations and about the “neo-colonialism” of the Western powers. But these passages are little more than perfunctory—a slight obeisance, perhaps, in the direction of the old Party apparat. Everywhere else, the focus is on contemporary problems; and here the work will be useful to the Western reader as evidence of the full scope and novelty of what this man is undertaking to do. He himself was not exaggerating in his several references to his program as “revolutionary.” And this, in the Soviet Union, is of course a very strong term. In the view of Russian Communists the events of November 1917 were the great revolution of all time. It is from this event, and from this alone, that the Soviet regime derives its claim to legitimacy. To suggest that the Revolution had such imperfections, or that the political movement it inaugurated was guilty of such distortions, that another revolution is now necessary to put things to rights: this goes very far.

Perestroika is an elaborate and far-flung program affecting Soviet society at a host of points. For this reason, it is not easily described in a few words. It might be said to have taken its departure from the recognition of two great deficiencies that have hampered development of the Soviet economy. The first was the over-centralization of economic decision-taking. Gorbachev, and others by whom he has been inspired, have recognized that the myriad of decisions essential to the smooth working of a great modern economy cannot all flow from one center, and that a great proportion of them have to be delegated to people down the line, even if at the cost of a certain impairment of central governmental control. The second recognition has been that the Soviet economy cannot be made to function as it should (and indeed as it must, if it is to compete with the free enterprise economies of the great powers) until there can be implanted in the breasts of a host of people at lower levels—workers, foremen, and administrators—a greater measure of what Gorbachev himself calls “inner stimuli.” Hence: decentralization of the power of economic and in part political decision-taking, and the encouragement of what he thinks of as “democratization” all down the line. This last does not mean the dismantling of the authoritarian political system; but it means a greater measure of consultation, and of something a bit more than consultation, of the feelings and views of people at the bottom.

The forms this program takes, where they vary importantly from what existed before, are well summarized in the book itself. “Many things are unusual in our country now,” Gorbachev writes:

election of managers at enterprises and offices; multiple candidates for election to Soviets [i.e., local government organs] in some districts; joint ventures with foreign firms; self-financed factories and plants, state and collective farms; the lifting of restrictions on farms producing food products for enterprises and run by them; wider cooperative activities; encouragement of individual enterprise in small-scale production and trade; and closure of non-paying plants and factories operating at a loss; and of research institutes and higher educational establishments working inefficiently.

Anyone who has known Soviet Russia in earlier years will recognize at once how far-reaching are these intended reforms. In their application to agriculture, where they envisage measures as drastic as the restoration of the independent family farm, their chances for success, as Gorbachev himself notes, will probably be greater than in their application to industry. The peasant, used to local barter and exchange, takes more readily to private enterprise than does his city cousin. In industry, as in trade, many problems remain to be solved before any of Gorbachev’s principles can be applied with full effectiveness; and some of them may prove not to be workable at all. But all of this he takes into account with characteristic boldness. “We realize,” he writes, “that there is no guarantee against mistakes.” But the worst of mistakes, he goes on to point out, would be “to do nothing out of fear of making one.”

Even more far-reaching are the changes of approach in foreign relations. They include not only extensive reversals of established policy but actual revisions of basic Marxist postulates. Admitting that “the class-motivated approach to all phenomena of social life” was once “the ABC of Marxism,” Gorbachev boldly asserts that the nuclear weapon has changed all that. Class confrontation, once the final determinant of all social-political development, now for the first time finds itself confronted with “an objective limit.” Unable to advance beyond that limit, it is being supplanted by what Gorbachev calls “a real, not speculative and remote, common human interest”—the need, that is, to save all humanity from nuclear disaster. Traditional Marxist logic had it that imperialism inevitably engendered major arms confrontations, the ultimate outcome of which would be social upheavals; and these, in turn, would finish off the capitalist system for good and thus establish global peace. Still valid? No, says Gorbachev, the “cause and effect relationship between war and revolution” has itself fallen victim to the harsh realities of the nuclear age. Political and ideological competition between capitalist and socialist countries will of course continue; but “it can and must be kept within a framework of peaceful competition which necessarily envisages cooperation.” Hence the necessity of “a new dialectic of the common human and class interests and principles in our modern age.”

For the leader of a movement that takes its ideology seriously and regards Marx as the creator and inspirer of the revolution from which it derives its origin these are not only strong words but words of great theoretical import. And the practical conclusions to which these conclusions relate, when it comes to the nuclear arms race and its implications for policy, are no less far-reaching. The nuclear weapon is recognized as a suicidal device, capable of bringing nothing less than disaster to whoever might venture to use it. It can serve neither offensive not defensive purposes. So long as it remains in national arsenals, and to the extent that it does, it is a menace to all of us. Nor is there any security to be gained from the effort to diminish the security of anybody else. The other fellow’s security is in fact one’s own. The striving for military superiority thus serves no purpose; it is only a means “of chasing one’s own tail.” Nor do these realities derive only from the existence of the nuclear weapon. “Even a conventional war,” says Gorbachev, “would be disastrous for Europe today.” What is required in both nuclear and conventional armaments is, in his view, only a defensive posture of “reasonable sufficiency”—a far cry from the once fashionable doctrine that a formidable offensive posture was the best deterrence.

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