Perestroika is not manna from heaven.
–Mikhail Gorbachev, at the Nineteenth Soviet Communist Party Conference
For years, if they wished to be honest, observers of the Soviet Union had to work like archeologists, digging below the political surface to discover real social changes taking place in the country. Today, as the frontiers of freedom are extended every day, as Soviet memory stretches into the past, as genuine debate picks up and institutions begin to be reshaped, one has the excitement of. watching history in the making. But the exhilaration brings its own problems–and I don’t mean for the conservative preachers who had sworn that the Evil Empire was frozen forever. They have by now conveniently forgotten their predictions and retreated to a new line of propaganda, some saying that Gorbachev is bound to break his political neck, others arguing that his only salvation lies in a conversion to capitalism. No, judging by some stern condemnations or uncritical endorsements on the left, it is Western socialists who face problems. They must revise their assessment of the nature of the rapidly changing Soviet society and brush up their concepts of revolution “from above” or “from below,” as well as of the relationship between the two.
They must also hurry because, however important, the transformations of the past three years are merely the first stage of a vast upheaval, and the changes so far have been far easier to assess than those that are still to come. It is natural to be for glasnost, for the publication of banned books or of manuscripts lying hopelessly in a drawer, for the showing of films and the staging of plays hitherto forbidden by the censor. Who but the diehard defending a privileged position can be against freedom of the press, of television, against the extraordinary breath of fresh air that is sweeping through the Soviet Union?
The same is true of the reconquest of the recent past. The historical assessment of Stalin’s rule and its aftermath is not just a question of rehabilitation and justice for the victims. The Russians need history, as a speaker at the Nineteenth All-Union Party Conference put it, to know “how we got into that swamp.” Furthermore, as I have argued before in these pages, access to the past implies the right of access to the present [see Singer, “On Recapturing the Soviet Past,” The Nation, December 12, 19871. If Soviet citizens are allowed to have all the elements of the debate on, say, the industrialization of the 1920s, they are entitled to have a similar debate on perestroika.
It is in this context that there are some worrisome signs of new distortion. The way in which several writers have presented Trotsky not as the victim of Stalinism but as its inspirer is, to put it mildly, indecent. The problem, again, is not whether Trotsky was wrong or right in this or that dispute. It is my guess that in its present mood the bulk of the Soviet intelligentsia, given an honest choice, would probably opt for Nikolai Bukharin (not the early “left Communist” but the moderate Bukharin, advocate of industrialization at “a snail’s pace”) over Trotsky, the “prophet” of permanent revolution. The essential thing, however, is to give an honest choice. By now, the only decent attitude is the one advocated by people like the historian Yuri Afanasiev: Let all the writings, including those of Stalin, be published, and consider Soviet citizens adult enough to make up their own minds. This, after all, is the basis of elementary–let alone socialist–democracy.