Who Killed Soviet Communism?

'Gorbachev's Endgame'

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

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev; drawing by David Levine

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…

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