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?”

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.”

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. 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 …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.