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Who Killed Soviet Communism?

Gorbachev’s Endgame’

by Jerry F. Hough
World Policy Journal, Vol. 7, No. 4 pp.

The mystery of Soviet communism is why it came to such an unexpected end. For such an all-embracing system to die, almost everyone expected that it would have to be killed. Instead, it collapsed, as if a house had fallen in on itself. Its old ruling bureaucracies have largely escaped unscathed and have even benefited from the new opportunities to wheel and deal. Paradoxically, the life of Soviet communism seems to be much less a problem than its death.

The question why arises again and again. In a recent Foreign Affairs, Seweryn Bialer, an old Soviet hand, referring to Gorbachev’s emergence as the dominant Soviet figure in March 1985, asks: “Six and a half years later the Soviet Union and Soviet communism were dead. What happened in those years that finally led to disintegration rather than salvation through grand reform? What happened to Mikhail Gorbachev?”1 The same question was asked by Michael Mandelbaum in another issue of Foreign Affairs: “How did it happen that a mighty imperial state, troubled but stable only a few years before, had come to the brink of collapse in 1991? Who and what were responsible?”2 The editor of a collection of articles on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the journal World Politics, from Princeton University, asks: “The political surprises that emerged in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s have, accordingly, compelled us to ask not simply why events unfolded as they did but why our predictive theories left us unprepared.”3 The editor of another collection of articles in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, remarks that “few had dared to believe in the possibility of so total a collapse of communist regimes.”4

Why so few, if any? And, whether foreseen or not, why did it occur in this way?


The articles in World Politics afford some insight into why political and social scientists have not been able to contribute much to our understanding of the collapse.

One political scientist appeals to Max Weber’s theories of power, charismatic salvationism, and routinization. After trying vainly to enlist these Weberisms in the cause of explaining the Soviet collapse, he concludes that “Weber’s theories are only moderately useful for anticipating the decline of communism and such recent developments as Gorbachev’s reforms or the democratization of communist regimes.”5

Modernization theory” is another disappointment. According to it, we are told, communism was, among other things, “nothing but a comprehensive design and an ideological mask for policies of development.” Unfortunately, modernization was a “linear” theory, intended to explain why the Communist regimes were going forward to “political modernization,” “political development,” or “nation-building.” This theory had no place for regimes that went backward to the point of collapse.6 Another political scientist in the same collection points out that the “modernization” theorizers went wrong because “relative and absolute stagnation and deprivation, not the unfettering of development, are very much behind the demise of communism.”7

Another approach is the “comparative.” It seeks to solve the Soviet mystery by looking at the way non-Communist authoritarian regimes, such as those in Spain and Latin America, made transitions to “democratization.” One similarity is said to emerge from a study of more than a dozen cases of transition in Latin America and Southern Europe, which also began with “a period of glasnost-like liberalization.”8 The analogy seems to suggest that we could learn something about the fate of the Gorbachev regime from past experiences in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and elsewhere. In the end, however, this comparative approach is frustrating, because it points both ways. “In the early days of reform, when many Western observers questioned the stability of Gorbachev’s political position, the literature on regime transitions could have helped point to sources of strength,” we are told. But we are also told in the next sentence: “Likewise, at a point when some began to speak of the irreversibility of reform, a comparative perspective might have provided greater caution.”9

Professor Timur Kuran of the University of Southern California made an effort to find prophets of the collapse, without much success.10 He came up with only one candidate, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? by Andrei Amalrik, written in 1969 and published in the United States in 1970. Unfortunately, Amalrik expected the Soviet crisis to come as a result of a war with China between 1975 and 1980, not as a result of an internal breakdown. Amalrik was a visionary whose guesses were not always farfetched. He was sure of the reunification of Germany and the rise of non-Russian nationalism. Much of what he had to say about the obstacles to Soviet reform can still be read with profit. Nevertheless, his scenario of the Soviet collapse is not very helpful today and makes him a dubious prophet.11

The only poll cited by Professor Kuran on expectations of collapse was taken in Germany. Four months after the downfall of East German communism, the Allensbach Institute asked a broad sample of East Germans: “A year ago did you expect such a peaceful revolution?” Only 5 percent answered “yes”; 18 percent “yes, but not so fast”; 76 percent, total surprise. If the question had been asked a year before the downfall, the negative answers would undoubtedly have been much larger.12

Faced with these sparse results, Professor Kuran felt obliged to propose a reason for the failure to anticipate the collapse. He maintains that the East European Revolution was not inevitable, but that “what was inevitable is that we would be astounded if and when it arrived.” In effect, if we had been able to foresee the collapse, there would be something wrong with us. He presents a theory which claims to explain why “major revolutions come as a surprise and why, even so, they are quite easily explained after the fact.” After elaborating a “model,” with A, A’, B, B’, C, C’, and D, D’, we get this all-purpose explanation:

The theory depicts the individual as both powerless and potentially very powerful. The individual is powerless because a revolution requires the mobilization of large numbers, but he is also potentially very powerful because under the right circumstances he may set off a chain reaction that generates the necessary mobilization. Not that the individual can know precisely when his own choice can make a difference. Although he may sense that his chances of sparking a wildfire are unusually great, he can never be certain about the consequences of his own opposition. What is certain is that the incumbent regime will remain in place unless someone takes the lead in moving the opposition.13

What is also certain is that such a theory permits us to predict anything and its opposite or nothing at all, even as the individual may be totally powerless and potentially very powerful. One way of getting around the problem of the collapse’s predictability is by making it unpredictable.

Another political scientist in World Politics is also impressed by the inability of our extant theories to cope with “swift change.” He advises caution “before embracing normal social science expectations about the impermanent legacy of social movements that surface at exceptional times in exceptionally problematic social contexts.”14 If “normal” social science expectations cannot cope with “abnormal” times, they fail us when we need them most. “Normal” theoretical expectations tell us about what we already know, not about what we need to know.

These examples give some idea of the problem of political scientists with the Soviet collapse. Somehow the reality falls through the interstices of the theories. Usually, there are so many independent variables to fill in that we know just about as much without the theory as with it. Professor Jeane J. Kirkpatrick of Georgetown University, the former US representative to the UN, has an explanation:

Political scientists have written multivolume studies on how and why regimes change, studies that examine historical cases and make generalizations. But none of these cases and generalizations can help us in explaining the collapse of Communist regimes all over Eastern Europe, because nothing like this has ever happened before—not in the history of empires, not in the modern period, certainly not among Communist states.15

It might pay political scientists to ask why their generalizations fail when they are confronted with something new—as if generalizations were not supposed to explain the new as well as the old.


The war of the Sovietologists takes us much closer to the real issues. Roughly, they have divided into two camps—the optimists and the pessimists. For a time, the optimists were riding high, and they have the most to explain.

At the head of the class of optimists is Jerry F. Hough, James B. Duke Professor of Political Science and Public Studies, director of the Center on East-West Trade, Investment, and Communications at Duke University, and an associated staff member at The Brookings Institution. He has been studying the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for the past thirty-five years. He publishes indefatigably and appears on television. He has never been reluctant to criticize those who disagree with him. Though there are others like him, he is a representative figure and shows why the optimistic school of Soviet studies has collapsed into a crisis all its own.

As long ago as 1977, Hough gave expression to his characteristic viewpoint. He maintained that the role of the Communist Party was not what it was commonly thought to be—a power structure governing every aspect of Soviet society. He contended that the Party interfered only when ministries and other organizations took their conflicts to it “for resolution.” He gave it the benign function of merely arbitrating disputes brought to it by other agencies. This view led him to make the remarkable assertion that the Soviet Union was a “pluralistic society” very much like any other. “It is perhaps the difference between saying that the bottle is 55 percent full or that it is 55 percent empty; the difference in tone is greater than the difference in substance.” This was written in the heyday of the now discredited, stagnating Brezhnev period, which Hough celebrated for its greater individual freedom, more egalitarianism, and dispersion of power.16

In 1982, Hough was still high on Brezhnev. He noted approvingly that Brezhnev had been talking about the need for economic reform and credited Brezhnev with the right intentions.17

But in 1986, with the advent of Gorbachev, Hough greeted the new leader with the same approbation that he had reserved for Brezhnev:

Many Americans have the comfortable feeling that the Soviet Union is in an irreversible decline. Would that it be so. The selection of the young Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary and the unprecedented urgency of his demands for economic reforms suggests, however, that the Soviet leadership is determined to reverse the decline.18

One year later, Hough was ready to pass judgment on Gorbachev’s achievement. He gave assurances that, by the first half of 1987, domestic economic reforms were firmly in place. He was also sure that “the back of the conservative opposition has been broken,” as if an attempted conservative coup was out of the question. Above all, he saw the salvation of, not the danger to, the Soviet Union for the rest of the century in its multinational character, because it would restrain the pressure of Russian intellectuals “for real pluralism and elections.”19

  1. 1

    The Death of Soviet Communism,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 5 (1991), p. 164.

  2. 2

    The End of the Soviet Union,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 71, No. 1 (1992), p. 169.

  3. 3

    Nancy Bermeo, World Politics, October 1991, p. 1. The issue is entitled “Liberalization and Democratization in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.”

  4. 4

    Stephen R. Graubard, Daedalus, Spring 1992, p. v. The collection is entitled “The Exit from Communism.”

  5. 5

    Andrew C. Janos, professor of political science, University of California, Berkeley, World Politics, October 1991, pp. 82–88.

  6. 6

    Janos, World Politics, pp. 88–93.

  7. 7

    Giuseppe Di Palma, professor of political science, University of California, Berkeley, World Politics, p. 53.

  8. 8

    The study in question is Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

  9. 9

    Russell Bova, associate professor of political science, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, World Politics, p. 137.

  10. 10

    World Politics, pp. 11–12.

  11. 11

    Harper and Row, 1970, pp. 50, 60, and 62. In Kuran’s survey, Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Romanian émigré who teaches at the University of Maryland, gets credit for spotting the extreme vulnerability of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania in 1989. But he did not link it up with any of the other satellites or predict that it would be the last satellite to fall (p. 12).

  12. 12

    World Politics, pp. 10–11. Leszek Kolakowski claims that “many people did in fact predict the collapse of the Soviet empire” but he gives no names or evidence. Of himself, he says that he made “such predictions on many occasions, in very general terms, but never on timing and space” (Daedalus, Spring 1992, p. 44). In such general terms, it might be said that no political system is going to live forever.

  13. 13

    Timur Kuran, World Politics, p. 24.

  14. 14

    Giuseppe Di Palma, World Politics, pp. 79-80.

  15. 15

    Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, The Withering Away of the Totalitarian State…and Other Surprises (American Enterprise Institute Press, 1990), p. 80.

  16. 16

    Jerry F. Hough, The Soviet Union and Social Science Theory (Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. viii, 3–4, 14.

  17. 17

    Jerry F. Hough, The Polish Crisis: American Policy Options (The Brookings Institution, 1982), p. 69.

  18. 18

    Jerry F. Hough, The Struggle for the Third World (The Brookings Institution, 1986), pp. 283–284.

  19. 19

    World Policy Journal, Fall 1987, pp. 584, 590, 591, 594.

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