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The Gorbachev Prospect’: An Exchange

In response to:

The Gorbachev Prospect from the January 21, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

Though I would endorse much of what George F. Kennan has written in his thoughtful review of Mikhail Gorbachev’s book (Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World) [NYR, January 21], I must take exception to some of his observations. “Class confrontation,” for instance, may find itself confronted with “an objective limit” in today’s world but it is by no means supplanted by “a real, not speculative and remote, common human interest” in the Soviet rulers’ minds. What Mr. Gorbachev probably means here is the “objective limit” of the atomic bomb deterrent. Otherwise, I am afraid, “the common human interest” is just another smokescreen for “class struggle,” i.e. for the continuous subversion of democratic or potentially democratic regimes by military force. After all, as Mr. Kennan I think knows, according to Marx and Engels the dictatorship of the proletariat will, in the long run, benefit even the expropriated old ruling classes; the suppression of the bourgeois is, dialectically, in the bourgeois’ long-term best interest. Consequently, the “common human interest” is nothing else but communist world dictatorship. Hopefully it is a utopia, but undoubtedly, it is Mr. Gorbachev’s article of faith. No matter what Mr. Gorbachev said about revisions of old Marxist shibboleths while chatting with the Washington press people, his revisions in this respect are purely semantic; what counts much more than his summit bon mots are his Party speeches, and in the latest important one of November 2, 1987, he reiterated his commitment to world revolution, i.e. to worldwide “class struggle,” when he said: “We are moving toward a new world, the world of Communism. We shall never turn off that road.”

Mr. Kennan also seems to have fallen victim to the widespread Western illusion that to be young means to be principled, progressive and forward-looking. In totalitarian societies this is by no means the rule. The Hitler Jugend were the most enthusiastic Nazis, the Young Pioneers of the Stalin era were the backbone of ruthlessness during the Thirties. Contemporary samizdat shows to what frightening extent young people can get corrupted by career considerations. In Czech underground literature the character of the youth who, on entering the university, is an anti-establishment rebel, only to graduate a few years later as a cynical candidate for the career of an apparatchik, has become a cliché. Therefore I am not so sure how many “younger political rivals” of the old guard Stalinists will “quote Gorbachev against them.” I am not at all sure that, in Russia, there is “a new generation, much more attuned to Gorbachev’s music,…waiting in the wings.” I wish I were sure.

Mr. Kennan writes that even the conservative members of the Politburo “find themselves…committed to [Gorbachev’s] 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.” Again I wonder. I know that comparisons of insignificant Czechoslovakia to big Russia are tricky; but they shouldn’t be dismissed offhand. There are undeniable (although TASS has recently denied them, see?) similarities between Mr. Dubcek’s reform attempts called “socialism with a human face” and Mr. Gorbachev’s efforts to which he has given the more appropriately bureaucratic names of “perestroika” and “glasnost.” The conservative members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Presidium—and they constituted almost half of that body—also committed themselves to the New Party Program announced in the spring of 1968 which sketched out the intended reforms. That did not prevent them from betraying that program and their comrades in the Presidium in the most reprehensible manner imaginable. And having betrayed them, they—for some time—claimed that they would carry out the planned reforms, only cleansed of all “elements of bourgeois thinking.” Soon, however, came the great Turning Back.

I agree with Mr. Kennan that a removal of Gorbachev would “come as a serious and unsettling shock to the Soviet intellectuals.” The Czechoslovak experience, however, teaches me that the most radical intellectuals can be simply mass-fired from their jobs, and the rest will quite easily be “tamed again and cowed as they were under Stalin.” Gorbachev, I think, is not “another epoch.” He is merely another well-meaning (let’s hope) Party secretary trying to square the circle of totalitarian and Russian inertia. Glasnost may be “a genie released from the bottle,” but unlike in the Oriental tale, this kind of genie—judging again by Czechoslovak experience—can be partly corked up again, partly chased out of the country, and partly forced underground. No big deal if you have a police force as brutal and skilled as the KGB, and as free of any free press.

As for the alleged “better understanding” of what Gorbachev is trying to do on the part of non-Russian nationalities? Well, the Baltic nations or the Ukrainians may, perhaps, better understand what Gorbachev’s reforms, if carried out, would mean for them: this, however, is potential trouble rather than help. And Mr. Kennan surely knows what caused the riots in Alma-Ata at the beginning of Mr. Gorbachev’s tenure. A non-Russian Kazak leader, a Brezhnevite to be sure, was dismissed and replaced by a Russian. (Mr. Gorbachev shows a disturbing tendency to replace “colored” leaders with Russians.) But to the Kazak people the ousted fellow was obviously a Kazak first, and a reactionary second, and so they opposed the new “progressive” but Russkie Reichsprotektor. And whether the traditionally problematic and quite important Georgia likes anything that comes from post-Stalin Muscovy, that is a question.

As for “world opinion” I would forget about it if I were Mr. Kennan. I had some bitter lessons concerning that. One day after Khrushchev had been pensioned off I expressed concern for “world opinion” in the presence of an editor of Novy Mir, certainly not a backward literary magazine. He answered in true Big-Brotherly fashion: “We don’t care about what the world will say. All we care about is what this change will mean for Russia.” The hope that “world opinion” would not tolerate an invasion of Czechoslovakia was the last refuge of many frightened people in the summer of 1968 in Prague. After my Novy Mir lesson I would voice the cynical belief that such an invasion was perfectly possible, in fact probable, or better: certain; and that “world opinion” would be annoyed for, perhaps, a month. That did not gain me many friends, but unfortunately I was right and they, with their faith in the conscience of the world, were not.

Mr. Kennan asks: “Could the system, without charismatic leadership, long endure the resulting [i.e. resulting from Mr. Gorbachev’s removal] aimlessness and paralysis?” This is a serious matter. If Mr. Gorbachev is unsuccessful—I am afraid that’s what’s in store for him—the Soviet system, given all the unresolved problems enumerated by Mr. Kennan, will find itself probably in an ever intensifying crisis which one day is bound to reach a climax. History teaches us that tyrants, when cornered, sometimes strike out. They start wars. Reason is abandoned, the old brain prevails over the new, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb. Therefore I would not dismiss so easily, as Mr. Kennan does, the fears of the “aggressive body of American opinion for which the specter of a great…enemy…has become a political and psychological necessity.” I don’t think this enemy is anybody’s necessity: I am afraid he is a historical fact that cannot be conjured away by wishful thinking based on that most American quality, invincible optimism.

Josef Skvorecky

Toronto, Canada

George Kennan replies:

The bitterness and pessimism that infuse Mr. Skvorecký’s comment on my recent review of Gorbachev’s Perestroika are understandable; and one cannot deny him one’s sympathy. Skepticism is, I am sure, the ultimate protective shield for those who have suffered too many disappointments to risk exposure to another one.

Nevertheless, there are weak points in his reasoning that, if corrected, should brighten in some degree the dark picture he sees before him. He should not mind if I call attention to them.

As evidence of what he believes to be Gorbachev’s “commitment to world revolution, i.e., to worldwide ‘class struggle,”’ Mr. Skvorecký cites a statement by Gorbachev to the effect that “we are moving towards a new world—the world of Communism. We will never depart from that path.”

These were the final two sentences in the three and a half hour long public ceremonial address delivered by Gorbachev in the name of the entire Party at the celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917. The context of those final passages makes it clear that when he used the term “we” what he had in mind was the Soviet Communist party and all those who accept its ideological leadership. In the official view of the Party, the “socialism” now achieved in the Soviet Union is only a point along the way to the ideal state of “Communism” (only sketchily defined and becoming dimmer and more distant with the passage of time) toward which the movement is supposed to be advancing. What Gorbachev said was: “In October 1917 we departed from the old world, renouncing it irrevocably. We are advancing toward the new world—the world of Communism. Never will we turn off of this path.” This was, then, merely the rhetorical reiteration of a long-established ideological concept. To interpret this as an active recommitment to world revolution as this commitment existed in the immediate postrevolutionary period, now sixty years in the past, is to distort very seriously the significance of what Gorbachev was meaning to say.

I agree entirely that the very young to whom he here refers are not always “principled, progressive and forward-looking.” (I myself, after all, wrote an entire book some years ago* taking issue with the extremisms of the student left.) But it was not to people of that age that I was referring in the passages he cites. I did indeed refer to the “younger rivals” of certain of the more reactionary of the Warsaw Pact leaders. But one did not have to be very young to be younger than the men in question. And when I spoke of a “new” generation in these Eastern European countries (not, as he has it, in Russia) I meant new to power, and new in their attitudes to the problems of the present age.

As concerns the non-Russian nationalities of the Soviet Union: my point is not, as Mr. Skvorecký suggests, that these people “like” what comes out of Moscow; it is that they are better positioned by historical experience and custom to implement some of Gorbachev’s ideas than the great masses of the Russian center (indeed, in some instances they had already anticipated them), and that they would therefore be more resistant to any attempts to put things back into the pre-Gorbachevian mold. Actually, I view the multinational character of the Soviet state as one of the greatest of its long-term (not short-term) problems, and have no desire to depreciate its importance.

More important than any of these points is Mr. Skvorecký’s challenge to my view that there can be no return to the conditions of the pre-Gorbachevian era. We are speaking here, of course, only of probabilities, not certainties, but within this area, I can do no other than to stand my ground. Not only is there the formal commitment of the senior Party bodies to much of Gorbachev’s program, but there is, I believe, even in the minds of Gorbachev’s strongest opponents, an awareness that in the situation that existed before he took office, the Soviet Union was falling seriously behind the advanced countries of the non-Communist world in a number of respects, and that something had to be done about it; for if nothing was done, this increasing backwardness would soon make itself felt in ways incompatible with the regime’s most cherished pretensions.

It is not to be expected that the forces motivating change, or restricting it, should be the same in the Soviet Union, a country that cannot blame its deficiencies on others, as they would be in Czechoslovakia, where the sense of dependency is probably greater than its reality.

What we are talking about, in the case of Russia, are two different things: glasnost and perestroika. Glasnost is primarily a matter for the intellectuals, a portion of whom set great store by it and would oppose its withdrawal by all the means in their power. And these means should not be underrated, because this is no longer the Russia of 1938 or 1948. The present regime has greater need for its intellectuals than did Stalin in those dreadful years.

Perestroika, on the other hand, is a matter rather for the administrative bureaucracy and for the people at large. And while it arouses mixed feelings, and sometimes even ones of outright opposition, in both of those elements, the possibility of its abandonment can be looked at only in terms of the conceivable alternatives. Even its sharpest critics would not want to return to the negativism of Brezhnev and Chernenko. If not perestroika, then what? And if not Gorbachev, who? Easy questions to raise, harder ones to answer.

This is not to say that Gorbachev will be everywhere successful. The hardest tests for his undertakings probably lie ahead. There will be reverses, perhaps even partial failures. But none of that means a complete return to the status quo ante. Even the failures of one epoch often contain the seeds of the successes of the next one.

  1. *

    Democracy and the Student Left (Atlantic Monthly/Little Brown, 1968).

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