Most revolutions are like soda bottles: they are opened with a pop, there follows a fizzing, and then, in too short a while, everything goes flat.
President Ronald Reagan is about to exit amid a rising chorus of conservative activists lamenting their recognition that the America they have created is pretty much the America they found. The probabilities are that Mikhail Gorbachev will arrive soon or late at the same dismal discovery about the inalterability of Russia. Revolutionaries fail not for want of good intent; they break against the granite of national habit.
Gorbachev seems almost desperate to alter Russian habits. What is sad is that he himself seems to be too much their prisoner to change his own. His Communist party conference was one of those remarkable spectacles that cannot quite qualify as significant events in history because the steady beat of the old ways pulses louder than all the clamor for new ones.
Assaults on custom seldom depart far from the rules of custom. There were 4,991 delegates to the Communist party conference. We have no secure way of knowing how they were selected since, whether or not Soviet statesmen are all that much warier of public disclosure than our own, they have immeasurably freer choice about withholding it.
But every now and then, some glint of light would emerge from the preliminary campaign and, in most cases, it powerfully suggested a reverence for their betters ingrained in the lower orders. Journalists elected their editors. When auto workers revolted against the selection of an unpopular works manager, they put forward another works manager as an alternative. Students elected their university rectors.
This compulsion to anoint one’s boss to assert one’s grievances has its singular consequences. Vladimir P. Kabaidze, manager of the Ivanov Machine Building Works, made himself famous with a passionate arraignment of the bureaucrats who inhibit the progress of his enterprise. This revolutionary firebrand observed in passing that he had felt it his duty as a delegate to ask the workers what they wanted him to say. “It was typical: ‘Comrade Kabaidze, give us this, give us that.’ They don’t want to earn it…. People should work for what they earn. People who claim poverty—we love them, these cripples and beggars.”
It is something of a challenge to be asked to infer the resurgence of the anarchosyndicalist flame from an assemblage that finds its hero in a member of the elite vehemently flailing about at everyone more or less elite than himself.
But such was the prevailing tone of this rally to Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolutionary standard. There were ordinary Soviet citizens present, and one steel mill operative was recorded as registering a protest against the dreariness of the workers’ lot. The journalists scoured the rest of the rank-and-file delegates and found no one else disposed to complain; they were instead both refreshed by and grateful for this license to watch their betters belaboring each other.
Their one chance for a gift more substantial came from the proffer of a resolution that would mandate the election of Communist party leaders by the direct ballot of Party members. It drew 145 votes, which is less than 3 percent of the delegates present.
But then let us be fair to Gorbachev. If he really cared for the sensibilities of rank-and-file delegates, he would be swimming against what is more and more a general tide. The results of our own political conventions are so precooked that few delegates are likely to change their votes even if they had changed their minds. Of course, we are not the Soviets; but even we are not altogether more immune than they to the universal sweep of the impulse to make sure that all assemblages be tractable and all their business tranquil.
August 18, 1988