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.

To suggest, as some Western commentators seem to do, that words and insights of this nature are brought forward only to deceive people in the West and to lull them into a sense of false security while Soviet forces prepare to attack them reveals a lack of understanding for the realities of Gorbachev’s position that borders on the bizarre. Such words cut to the heart of established beliefs and policy. They represent a serious responsibility on the part of the statesman who puts them forward. To suppose that Gorbachev has all internal problems so beautifully solved that he can afford to play around irresponsibly, for the purpose of throwing sand in our eyes, with statements of this nature is to misjudge fundamentally the responsibilities he assumes in making them, and the priorities he has to bear in mind between the external and the internal effects of his words.

A wholly different matter is of course the question of the prospects for the success of Gorbachev’s program, as summarized in this book. What he has taken upon himself, with the launching of this program, is truly a task of gargantuan dimensions. It is not certain that he himself realizes this; for the implications of what he is proposing far exceed the aims of the program as he has described them. Whether he realizes it or not, what he has set out to correct are not only the damages brought to Russian society by Brezhnev’s regime of social laxness and entrenched privilege, not only the effects of the fearful abuse and corruption inflicted on that society by Stalin’s regime of terror, but also the costs of the cruelties and excesses of the initial years of revolution and civil war from 1917 to 1920. And then, beyond all these, and reaching back into the prerevolutionary period, lies much of the unfinished business of the old czarist regime, whose not inconsiderable positive efforts—to introduce into Russian political life the elements of a proper parliamentary system, to restructure Russian agriculture, and to modernize Russian society generally—were so rudely put to an end by war and revolution in 1917. All these great setbacks to Russia’s development rise to confront Gorbachev today as he sets out not only to render Russia reasonably competitive in the modern world of technological and electronic revolution but also to give to its life a quality more responsive to the hopes of the great social idealists whose figures have punctuated the dark pages of Russian history.

For no one who reads this book can doubt (or so it seems to this reviewer) that Gorbachev is at heart something of an idealist. He is a true believer—in a dream that he calls socialism. One may think as one likes about the realism of the dream. The faith itself is evident. His regime, in its treatment of dissidents, and its restrictions on movement and thought, remains bound to many brutal practices of the past. But compared to what has gone before him—compared to the savagery, the cynicism, the ritualistic shallowness, and the heartlessness with which this same symbol has been manipulated by numbers of his predecessors—his vision of socialism, realistic or otherwise, is relatively humane. When he says, as he does in this book, that “whatever values you defend, what matters most is whether the people’s destiny and future are of concern to you,” he is not joking. Under any other view he would be a fool or a martyr to take on what he has undertaken to do.

There can be no question of the formidableness of the forces of resistance now marshaled against Gorbachev’s undertakings. Intentionally or otherwise, he has created opposition, formidable and unpitying, on every hand. A sullen, embittered industrial and agricultural labor force—a population whose inherited embitterment has sources reaching back over centuries rather than decades; a population wholly unfamiliar with the concepts, procedures, and responsibilities of democracy, schooled only in the arts of dependency on higher authority; a population that, to use Chekhov’s phrase, wakes up from the bad dream of daily life only behind the vodka glass in the pub on Saturday nights: How can such a population be aroused out of its profound apathy and moved to accept the responsibilities of democratic initiative in the managing of large agricultural and industrial enterprises?

How are industrial laborers, accustomed to a total irresponsibility with respect to the successful functioning of the enterprises in which they serve; accustomed to doing only the minimal amount of work for the hours they put in, confident that they could not easily be fired or that even if they should be, other jobs would at once be waiting for them—how are such people to react to a leader who tells them that the day is upon them when they will work hard and well, or else…? How are hordes of run-of-the-mill administrative bureaucrats, in many instances fully twice as many as were really needed for the function at hand, to react to a governmental policy that tells them they are redundant and must soon scrounge around for other occupations? And what of the public at large, accustomed to receiving a number of the staples of daily life—bread, meats, rent, and whatnot—at fractions of the prices people in the West have to pay for these same things? How are they to react to the news that the prices of these staples are shortly to be greatly raised, and to the suggestion that they should accept this because at some dim future date their lives will be better for it?

What, again, of the senior bureaucrats, the members of the “nomenclatura,” who are asked to give up many of their privileges—their special stores, schools, and dachas, their chauffeured cars, their attractive vacations—in the interests of a program the rigors of which are near at hand, the beneficial fruits of which are far away? What of the senior figures around Gorbachev, finding themselves impelled, at a pace they find both dangerous and uncomfortable, along a path plainly strewn with obstacles? And what, finally, must be the effect of all this upon the more reactionary leaders in the other Warsaw Pact countries, long accustomed to oppressing their peoples in the name of the Soviet example, but now tripped up by Soviet pronouncements and policies that belie the very basis of their fidelity, and faced, in the bargain, with a rising generation of younger political rivals who quote Gorbachev against them?

Can Gorbachev hope, in the face of all this, to carry his entire program to successful completion? Of course not. No statesman ever does that, even in the face of lesser obstacles. Nor do the results of statesmanship ever bear anything other than an ironic relation to what the statesman in question intended to achieve and thought he was achieving. At some point assuredly, the forces arrayed against Gorbachev will coalesce to unseat him; and nothing permits either the assumption that this could not occur at an early date or the firm prediction that it will. But even if it were to come tomorrow, it is safe to say that Russia would never again be the same as it was before his passage. If it may be said with reasonable assurance that not all of his program will be achieved, it may be said with equal assurance that some of it undoubtedly will be; and whatever portion will have been achieved could hardly be other than for the better.

That Gorbachev’s personal position, at this juncture, has elements of precariousness cannot be denied. The significance in this connection of the Yeltsin episode has, to be sure, been much exaggerated by the Western press. If important questions of principle were involved no solid evidence of this has yet emerged. The Russian Communist party, like closed social or political collectivities everywhere, has its traditional standards of comportment. These Yeltsin obviously violated. In doing so he embarrassed his senior colleagues, Gorbachev included; he paid the price in a significant demotion. When he confessed publicly to at least a portion of his misdemeanors he was following a Party tradition of self-abasement that seems to many outsiders more repellent than it seems to many of the Party members themselves. He presumably did so to save his status, perhaps even his membership, in the Party. But it certainly did not have to be done to save his life; and to compare his plight with that of Bukharin fifty years ago is to suggest a serious lack of understanding for what was going on in that terrible year of 1937.

To depreciate the significance of the Yeltsin episode is not, however, to underestimate the difficulty of Gorbachev’s present position. The point at which he has arrived—where his program has advanced just far enough to create discomfort in many quarters, and to bar any retreat, but not far enough to produce conspicuous positive results—is obviously the point of greatest strain and danger. And it is surely not without significance that the public advocacy of this program has been left almost exclusively to him. Not one of the major personalities in his immediate political entourage, unless it be his fellow Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, has given him any significant political assistance in this task. He is on his own.

Yet his position, this ominous loneliness notwithstanding, is not without its aspects of strength. It is one thing to sit on one’s hands and hedge one’s bets—to grumble and murmur behind Gorbachev’s back—to try to keep one’s options open until one sees how things turn out. It would be another thing to overthrow him and face the question of who should succeed him. The other members of the senior bodies of the Party—the Politburo, the Secretariat, and the Central Committee—find themselves extensively and formally committed to his program by the decisions they have already taken. And there could be no turning back. No one wants to revive—indeed there could be no revival of—the regime of Brezhnev. Gorbachev could be opposed, therefore, only by someone who could claim to be able to advance his program more successfully than he could. But who would want to try this? Who else has the stomach for it, the enthusiasm, the drive, the eloquence, and the courage—the courage, particularly, to take it on precisely at this most difficult of moments? Without those qualities a successor would find himself in a position in which he could neither advance nor retreat. Nothing could be more dangerous.

A removal of Gorbachev, in the present situation, would also have incalculable ulterior consequences. It would come as a serious and unsettling shock to the Soviet intellectuals—his sole wholehearted supporters. Could they again be tamed and cowed as they were under Stalin? It seems unlikely. This is another epoch. Glasnost is a genie which, once released from the bottle, will not easily be put back into it again. And how about the non-Russian nationalities within the Soviet Union? These, if the private letters published in the book are any indication, have a much better understanding of what Gorbachev is trying to do than does the Russian center. And how about the reactions in the Eastern European “satellite” countries, where Moscow’s political hold is already tenuous, and where, as noted above, a new generation, much more attuned to Gorbachev’s music, is waiting in the wings?

And how about world opinion? Hundreds of millions of people the world over, electrified by Gorbachev’s striking appearance at the Washington summit, have been moved to a new level of hope for real progress, at long last, in the overcoming of the nuclear nightmare. Are these hopes to be dashed and compelled to yield to a proportionate level of consternation and despair, with Moscow appearing as the party guilty of this spectacular setback?

For better or for worse, this is an age of change; and Gorbachev has made himself its angel and its instrument. His disappearance, in present circumstances, would leave Russia with nothing ahead of it, and nothing to return to. Could the system, without charismatic leadership, long endure the resulting aimlessness and paralysis?

For seven decades, people in this country have been basing their suspicions of the Soviet Union and their hostility to Soviet policies on a given pattern of Soviet life and outlook that they have found unacceptable. Whatever else Gorbachev has done, he has mounted the most strenuous effort seen to date to change some of the very conditions and the policies to which people here have so negatively reacted. Beyond this he is, as his book confirms, a man who would like to see Soviet-American relations develop in a peaceful, businesslike, and generally constructive direction—and this not just for reasons of state or of personal political advantage (although he has such reasons, too) but because he has realized, in advance of some of his Western confreres, that in the nuclear age such purposes cannot be usefully served by competitive military efforts.

All this being so, the prospects on the Soviet side for a significant improvement of Soviet-American relations will continue to be greater, so long as Gorbachev’s preeminence endures, than they have been at any time since the Revolution. These prospects will continue, however, to be endangered on the American side by two factors. One is the continuing existence of a substantial, politically influential, and aggressive body of American opinion for which the specter of a great and fearful external enemy, to be exorcised only by vast military preparations and much belligerent posturing, has become a political and psychological necessity. The other is the influence of the American commercial media of communication. The improvement of Soviet-American relations poses difficulties enough even when the attendant problems are viewed soberly and in life-size dimensions. When everything has to be oversimplified, sensationalized, and blown up to dimensions two or three times beyond reality to meet the commercial demands of the press and television, the entire process of constructive statesmanship becomes subject to a heightened level of precariousness.

Whether the process can successfully withstand these strains is a question this reviewer is able to answer optimistically only—one might say—on the brighter days. But in this political world, where artificially created images are considered more significant than realities, the unexpected is just as likely to assume favorable forms as unfavorable ones. It is always possible, then, that the irrational can provide hope where rationality perceives little reason for it.


The Gorbachev Prospect’: An Exchange March 17, 1988